Updated Scorecard and New Report Examine Local Police Body Camera Programs and Process

WASHINGTON – Today The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn released an updated scorecard that evaluates the civil rights safeguards of police body-worn camera programs in 75 U.S. cities.  The organizations also released a report, The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence, which explains why police departments must carefully limit law enforcement officers’ review of body-worn camera footage.

“As more police departments utilize body-worn cameras, they must not be taken as the last word for police accountability,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference. “Our scorecard shows that many police departments are failing to adopt adequate safeguards for ensuring that constitutional rights are protected, and our report shows that unrestricted footage review places civil rights and liberties at risk and undermines the goals of transparency and accountability. Without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that body-worn cameras could be used in ways that threaten civil and constitutional rights and intensify the disproportionate surveillance of communities of color.”

“Body-worn camera footage does not provide an objective truth of what happened during an incident. It’s merely another perspective that could shed light on how an incident unfolded,” said Harlan Yu, executive director at Upturn. “It’s both common sense and common practice to get eyewitnesses to describe what they saw, before showing them footage and influencing their stories. Officers should be held to the same standard.”

The scorecard shows a nationwide failure to protect the civil rights and privacy of communities of color that are over-surveilled and over-policed. In 2015, these organizations released an initial scorecard evaluating policies of 25 programs, and in 2016, the scorecard was expanded to 51. This new edition updates the policies of those 51 original police departments and adds 24 more. The 75 jurisdictions reviewed include the nation’s largest police departments with body-worn camera programs, programs that have received significant funding from the Department of Justice, and programs in cities that have been under scrutiny due to high profile incidents of police violence.

Departments evaluated in this edition of the scorecard include: Alameda, Albuquerque, Arlington (Texas), Atlanta, Aurora (Colo.), Austin, Baltimore, Baltimore County, Baton Rouge, Boston, Broward County, Buffalo, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado Springs, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fairfax County (Va.), Fayetteville, Ferguson, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Worth, Fresno, Honolulu, Houston, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Los Angeles County, Louisville, Memphis, Mesa, Miami, Miami-Dade County, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Montgomery County (Md.), Newark, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Orlando, Parker (Colo.), Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (Penn.), Portland (Ore.), Prince George’s County, Raleigh, Rochester (N.Y.), Sacramento, Saint Paul, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Bernardino, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Stamford, Suffolk County, Tampa, Tucson, Tulsa, Virginia Beach, and Washington, D.C.

The scorecard uses eight criteria derived from the Civil Rights Principles on Body-Worn Cameras signed by a broad coalition of civil rights, privacy, and media rights groups in May 2015. The scorecard also highlights policies in each of these categories that, of those evaluated, best protect the civil rights of individuals.

Notably, the scorecard found that:

  • Only 4 out of 75 of departments expressly allow people who are filing police misconduct complaints to view all relevant footage.
  • Only 7 out of 75 departments place any limits on the use of facial recognition together with their camera systems.
  • No department reviewed requires its officers to always write incident reports before watching relevant footage. Only 13 out of 75 departments place any restrictions on officer review of footage, primarily after serious use-of-force incidents.
  • Only 11 out of 75 departments delete unneeded footage within six months of recording.
  • Since the last scorecard release in August 2016, 51 percent (26) departments did not have any score changes, 35 percent (18) had minor improvements, and 14 percent (7) actually made their policies worse.

If body-worn cameras are to help to drive consistency, fairness, and justice, it’s imperative for all police departments with camera systems to prohibit unrestricted footage review by officers —as the Civil Rights Principles on Body-Worn Cameras recommend—and adopt clean reporting as a standard practice. In addition to the updated scorecard, the organizations released a report examining the detrimental impact of unrestricted footage review policies, The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence.

Today, most major police departments that use body-worn cameras give officers unrestricted footage review. Officers may review body-worn camera footage any time they wish, including before and during the process of writing their initial incident reports. Even in cases where officers’ actions are most closely scrutinized, including after a controversial use-of-force incident, officers are often permitted to review footage before giving investigators an initial interview.

The report explains why police departments must carefully limit officers’ review of body-worn camera footage. Policies that permit unrestricted review of footage reduces the accuracy of officer reports, and undermine the independent evidentiary and investigative value of police reports.

Departments can ensure that officer reports are as accurate and independent as possible by requiring clean reporting. The report notes that clean reporting is a simple and sensible two-step process:

  • Step 1: Officers write an initial incident report before reviewing any footage.
  • Step 2: Once an initial report is filed, officers may then review any available footage and file a supplemental report.

The first step preserves a report’s independent evidentiary value, by requiring officers to explain — from their own perspective and memory — what they saw and what they did.

Clean reporting would benefit everyone across the criminal justice system. It would improve judicial outcomes by preserving the independence of evidence in the service of fair and thorough fact-finding. It would reassure the public that body-worn cameras have utility as tools of accountability, rather than simply instruments for enhanced policing. And it would help officers themselves, whose actions could be judged based on their perceptions at the time, rather than being held to account for everything that’s shown in footage.

The full 2017 scorecard can be found here.

The report, The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence, can be found here.

Click here to watch the press webinar describing the scorecard and report.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is 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 member organizations, visit www.civilrights.org.

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.org.