Civil and Human Rights Groups and Technology Experts Urge Caution on Axon’s Body Worn Cameras Announcement
WASHINGTON— Today The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Upturn, ACLU, Center for Media Justice, Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, Color of Change, Media Mobilizing Project, and Open Technology Institute issued the following statements following the announcement by Axon (formerly known as TASER International) that they will provide free body worn cameras to every police officer in the U.S., and they will “also provide supporting hardware, software, data storage, training, and support to police departments free of cost for one year”:
“Few things in life are truly free and we urge caution to any law enforcement agency that is contemplating accepting Axon’s offer,” said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “These cameras are, at most, one ingredient in the recipe for better policing across this country. They are just a tool—not a substitute—for broader, more meaningful reforms that directly address issues of profiling, excessive use of force, and implicit and explicit racial bias. Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools of accountability. If departments accept this offer, they must develop and implement body camera policies that uphold accountability and protect the rights of those being recorded. Moreover, there are significant long term costs that should be considered for the time after the trial period expires.”
“Police departments need to discuss with their communities whether body worn cameras are necessary before deciding to accept this offer,” said Harlan Yu, principal at Upturn. “This is a rapidly developing technology, and we’ve already seen instances where lax policies and haphazard enforcement have led to a lack of accountability. Cameras should never be adopted until the proper policy safeguards are in place. This new technology should help protect the civil rights of recorded individuals, not undermine them. Without proper safeguards, we can expect a deterioration of the trust between law enforcement and the public they serve.”
“Police departments should not rush to deploy cameras just because of a hardware giveaway. Hardware is a relatively small part of the cost of cameras—and more importantly, without taking the time to do it right, and implement good policies, cameras will do more harm than good,” said Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, the American Civil Liberties Union.
Malkia Cyril, Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice said, “Offering free body cameras to every police officer in the country will increase criminalization, not safety, of communities of color; and will embolden police violence, not empower social change. Police body cameras, especially without civil rights and privacy protections, are nothing more than surveillance equipment, and a false solution to the epidemic of police violence facing American cities nationwide.”
“Communities have to ask what software will be run on the video that these cameras gather,” said Clare Garvie, associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. “TASER has long forecasted the use of real-time face recognition on live body camera video. Picture a world where the face of every man, woman, and child is scanned and identified when they pass an officer on the street. This may be the first step towards that world.”
“Just like with Baltimore’s invasive and ‘free’ Eye in the Sky program, Axon’s program will allow police departments across the country to use an unregulated surveillance tool with little to no transparency, accountability, or community oversight. With police already disproportionately deployed to communities of color, these cameras will do little more than to serve as another tool for recording the day-to-day lives of people of color,” said Brandi Collins, Senior Campaign Director at Color Of Change. “Body cameras are not a substitute for real reforms that directly address racial profiling, excessive use of force, racial bias, and police militarization. Without community oversight and transparency, we’ve seen that body cameras can exacerbate problems of over-policing and over-incarceration.”
“Philadelphia has piloted use of these cameras, but is just now starting to engage with our communities on their potential risks,” said Hannah Sassaman, policy director at Media Mobilizing Project, a nonprofit focusing on technology, poverty and racial justice, based in Philadelphia. “City officials, elected representatives, and community groups and members need massive oversight of this new technology before it is introduced into policing. And any city that chooses to introduce or expand body worn cameras must be accountable to communities most impacted by racism in policing, to ensure these cameras are used to hold police accountable, rather than just put one more tool for evidence collection into the hands of police and prosecutors.”
“The tendency to view body worn cameras as a panacea for police accountability ignores the many challenges and complexities that drive the need for that accountability in the first place,” said Sarah Morris, Director of Open Internet Policy at New America’s Open Technology Institute. “We must be especially wary of company efforts to distribute ‘free’ cameras and hardware without further oversight. Any use of body worn cameras must carefully balance any potential benefits with the risk of severe threats to civil rights and civil liberties, particularly for communities of color. This risk/benefit assessment cannot be done from the top down—it is critically important that police departments work with the communities they serve to understand the impacts the technology will have and implement proper safeguards to mitigate harm.”
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn previously released a scorecard that evaluates the civil rights safeguards of body-worn camera policies being used by the country’s largest police departments with camera programs. The scorecard is based on a shared set of Civil Rights Principles for Body Worn Cameras that were endorsed in 2015 by 34 major civil rights, privacy, and media rights groups.
Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition charged by its diverse membership of more than 200 national organizations to promote and protect the rights of all persons in the United States. The Leadership Conference works toward an America as good as its ideals. For more information on The Leadership Conference and its 200-plus member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.
Harlan Yu is a principal at Upturn, based in Washington DC. Upturn works alongside social justice leaders to shape the impact of new technologies on people’s lives. For more information about Upturn, visit https://www.teamupturn.com.
The American Civil Liberties Union is our nation’s guardian of liberty, with a presence in all 50 states and more than 1 million members. For nearly 100 years, the ACLU has been at the forefront of virtually every major battle for civil liberties and equal justice in this country, and has participated in more cases at the Supreme Court than any other non-governmental organization.
The Center for Media Justice is building a movement of unheard voices for a more just media and digital world – with racial and economic justice for all.
Clare Garvie is an associate with the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law. Founded in 2014, The Center is a think tank focused on privacy and surveillance law and policy. In 2016, Center staff published The Perpetual Line-Up: Unregulated Police Face Recognition in America, the first comprehensive survey of police use of face recognition technology. The views of Center experts do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center, Georgetown Law, or Georgetown University.
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.
Since its founding in 2005, Media Mobilizing Project has used strategic media, arts and communications to intervene in critical human rights struggles from public education to healthcare, media reform and public services. MMP does this through working with low-wage workers, youth, immigrants and other communities on media collaborations, narrative development, training and education in audio/video production, digital literacy and human rights.
The Open Technology Institute (OTI) works at the intersection of technology and policy to ensure that every community has equitable access to digital technology and its benefits. We promote universal access to communications technologies that are both open and secure, using a multidisciplinary approach that brings together advocates, researchers, organizers, and innovators. To learn more, please visit us online at www.newamerica.org/oti and on Twitter @OTI.