JURIST Guest Columnist Alexander Burns of Valparaiso University discusses growing pains associated with law enforcement body cameras use, implementation, and pending Indiana legislation…In this article I will address several legal and practical issues presented by law enforcement body cameras including: privacy concerns for victims, juveniles and witnesses, especially when an officer is interviewing a witness or victim in a private residence, the logistics and problems associated with storing and managing an influx of video data and the need for effective legislation in Indiana to address these issues.
Post-Ferguson, around the country, the knee jerk reaction is this: we need law enforcement body cameras and we need them yesterday. Across the country, law enforcement implementation of body cameras is the new norm. Generally, reactions to body cameras are positive; they are perceived as an effective tool that offer protection to the officers wearing them as well as the citizens encountered.
But implementing body cameras is not always an easy task. Law enforcement is feeling the pressure, not only to implement body cameras, but also to do so quickly. It is easy to see why they are struggling to adapt. If a department is able to figure out how to pay for the physical cameras, they soon realize they also need new training, new policies, software to manage and retain all that data, and likely a full-time officer tasked only with making decisions on what video to save, for how long and how to pay for the massive data storage.
Additionally, under certain circumstances, body cameras may unintentionally reduce privacy protection for certain citizens. Currently, inadvertent public disclosure of otherwise protected juvenile information in body camera video is another issue that remains unresolved in the Indiana Code. As nearly every news outlet and human rights group calls for camera implementation, the Indiana legislature is trying to catch up and sort out the legal issues and logistics of quickly and effectively implementing law enforcement body cameras in society.
Initially, the proposition that every law enforcement officer wear a body camera was as an overwhelmingly positive policy change. More evidence, in video form, of officer and civilian encounters offers protection for the officers wearing the cameras as well as the citizens they encounter. The analysis is: cameras are good, therefore it follows, logically, that we must implement them now. Unfortunately, that is where most people’s analysis stops.
Until recently, I personally could not and did not think of any drawbacks to more cameras and more footage. This summer, however, when working as an intern for the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s Office [official website], I realized several drawbacks and additional considerations for law enforcement body cameras which must be addressed. As an intern, some of my duties involved the laborious task of watching, redacting and disclosing police videos for current and pending litigations. The majority of the media I worked with was traditional dash camera and breath test room video. Occasionally, in addition to the more traditional media, body camera videos were also in the mix. As I watched additional videos, I began to realize just how much time and money viewing, redacting and disclosing more video could cost taxpayers.
Imagine a DUI investigation lasting approximately thirty-minutes: two squad cars and four officers arrive on scene, each vehicle and each officer is outfitted with a camera and the officers then investigate and arrest the suspect for operating while intoxicated. During the course of any litigation, resulting from the arrest, there will be approximately three hours of video and at least another thirty-minutes of breath test room video, which someone, likely a lowly intern, must watch, redact and disclose. All the watching, redacting and disclosing is time paid for by taxpayer money, time that is currently already allocated and cannot be easily fit into the already jam-packed schedule of the average deputy prosecuting attorney. The only solution is to hire more people to deal with the influx of videos.
The work I did got me thinking: what happens to the countless hours of videos not part of pending litigation? Those videos do not have an intern to watch them, then redact sensitive personal information, and they are all subject to public disclosure. From my legal studies at Valparaiso School of Law, I knew any police video not part of a pending investigation or litigation is subject to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by any member of the general public for no reason at all. I then realized this issue presents major privacy concerns and is more significant implications than use of taxpayer resources.
Specifically, personal information, images and video of juveniles documented by body cameras are freely accessible by the media or—any citizen—via a Freedom of Information Act request. Imagine a scenario where an officer encounters a lost child. Before making contact, per department policy, the officer turns on their body camera. The officer then attempts to find the child’s parents by asking the child for personal information including name, age, telephone number, parent’s names and address. The video of the encounter and all the juvenile’s personal information then become a public record, which is accessible by anyone via a FOIA request.
As police departments across the country continue implementing body cameras, further policy considerations and legislative protection of juveniles information is the paramount issue. All images, video and private information of juveniles depicted in body camera video should be afforded the same protection as in court proceedings and statutorily protected from public disclosure. Currently, inadvertent public disclosure of otherwise protected juvenile information in body camera video is an issue that remains unaddressed in the Indiana Code. Our legislature, however, is taking steps to address these very important privacy concerns with the help of a special committee hearing testimony from those on the cutting edge of the complexities created by body cameras.
Fortunately for Hoosiers, specifically those of us from Tippecanoe County, our very own West Lafayette Police Department [official website] (“WLPD”) is quite literally writing the book on implementation of body cameras. I recently spoke with West Lafayette Police Chief Jason Dombkowski [official website] about law enforcement body cameras. Chief Dombkowski just arrived home from a trip to Alaska, where he spoke at a law enforcement conference about West Lafayette Police experience with body cameras, beginning in 2013 as part of a Purdue Graduate Program. Dombkowski said that WLPD first started testing body cameras in 2013 because of the proliferation of cell phones with video capabilities. Videos of police encounters shot by bystanders often only show part of the encounter and therefore do not tell the whole story. The main objective behind WLPD officers starting to wear body cameras was to document the full encounter.
Because WLPD had a head start, they are one of two departments in Indiana able to fully implement body cameras within 30 days after Ferguson in September of 2014. Now WLPD is using what they learned to help other departments implement body cameras and tailor department policies based on their own trial and error as well as a few studies from the Department of Justice and the ACLU. Chief Dombkowski, also recently testified before a joint Indiana House and Senate Committee about WLPD’s experiences and issues with the cameras. Chief Dombkowski told lawmakers in the year since his department equipped officers with body cameras, the number of police incidents involving force has dropped dramatically, from 29 in 2013 before cameras were used to seven this year: “Well the proof is in the pudding there,” Dombkowski said in an interview . “I have to believe everybody behaves differently when they know they’re on camera.”
As far as legislation is concerned, the first regular session of the 119th Indiana General Assembly [official website] convened on Tuesday, January 6, 2015, during the session legislators proposed bills to address this issue. Early in the session, bills from the Indiana House Bill 1225 [PDF] and the Senate Bill 454 [PDF] urged the legislative council to take immediate action by assigning a study committee regarding public records requests for police body camera video. Those two bills lead to, Legislative Council Resolution 15-01 [PDF], which birthed a joint Interim Study Committee on Government [PDF] tasked with addressing the issue of public records requests for police body camera video: “Whether additional exemptions are needed in the open records law (Indiana Code 5-14-3 [PDF]) to prevent the disclosure of private information caught on police body camera video, including interiors of private homes, medical information, juveniles, witnesses, and victims…”
The committee met at the State House a total of four times beginning in August 2015 and ending on October 15, 2015. During their sessions the committee explored a number of relevant topics by reviewing exhibits, scholarly articles, studies from the DOJ, ACLU and policy from Indiana police departments with prior body camera experience. The committee also called expert witnesses. The agenda, witness list and exhibits may be found here. The committee’s first and second meeting involved discussions about the current statute [PDF], whether it is now obsolete, and data issues and how they interact with public record requests. Testimony was heard from law enforcement and the courts. The committee’s final report [PDF] was published on Tuesday, October 6, 2015.
Overall Indiana’s legislature is being as proactive as they can in dealing with this novel issue. However, any legislation sent down the pipeline will not become law until July 1, 2016 at the earliest. Until then, and likely after, body cameras present an ever-evolving set of issues. But, lets not forget that all the struggles and growing pains are necessary to implement what may prove to be the most useful tool for serving justice in our modern society.
Alexander Burns is a third-year law student at Valparaiso University. He studies legal journalism and interned at the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor’s Office in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Suggested citation: Alexander Burns, Body Camera Growing Pains, JURIST – Student Commentary, Jan. 14, 2016, http://jurist.org/dateline /2016/01/Alexander-Burns-Body-Cameras.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Robbie Cimmino, an Assistant Editor for JURIST Commentary. Please direct any questions or comments to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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