Nation in Body Camera Fever

– In the USA, there is a boom of body cameras: More and more police departments are purchasing body cameras for their officers as a tool to fight accusations against them after being in the field.

– But many questions remain unanswered: What happens if a police officer turns off his camera at the crucial moment? And who should have access to the recordings?

– Body cameras could also be of interest to other professional groups, like tradesmen or court marshals.

The last minutes of the life of James B. now exist as a YouTube video: It is the body camera video recorded by a police officer. B. talks with the officers, during which he becomes more and more angry, and ultimately strikes out with a snow shovel that he is holding in his hands. The image begins to shake; the police officer is clearly met with a blow. Then the video cuts off.

James B. of Salt Lake City, Utah is dead, shot by the police officer that filmed him. The recordings could shed some light on the exact circumstances of the event, but the shots are not to be seen. The blow damaged the body camera, say the local police. Hobby investigators claim, on the other hand, that the officer quickly turned off the camera himself.

Body cameras were considered one of the most important measures to rebuild trust in the police after the deadly shots on the black teenager Michael Brown, but the video images do not offer a simple solution, as is exhibited not only in the incident in Utah, but also in the recording from the deadly arrest of Eric Garner in New York, which resulted in no criminal punishment.

Tasers Activate Cameras

Despite the ambiguity, the manufacturers of the cameras were quick to roll out production: With weekly regularity, police departments from Miami to Seattle have announced pilot programs — also related to the fact that the Obama administration has announced powerful grants for them. In December, the Los Angeles police publicly announced their plan to outfit about 7,000 street officers with body cameras.

In January, the city ordered 3,000 tasers, which automatically activate the body camera via Bluetooth during an operation. “It is our goal to make these important tools available to every front line officer over the next few years,” declared Police Chief Charlie Beck in relation to the high-tech offensives. At any rate, the officers could defend themselves with these gadgets against false accusations after being in the field.

“Bodycams are a step in the right direction,” says Jay Stanley of the civil rights organization American Civil Liberties Union, “certainly they should help solve the existing problems with police work — they should not become a new tool for mass surveillance.”* The shopping fever hides the fact that many questions remain unanswered.

Police Districts Can Freely Decide

The Department of Justice has indeed published a policy directive, but it is not binding. The U.S. has almost 18,000 police districts; “the policies will land very differently,”* believes Stanley. Thus far, only a few states have committed themselves to officially standardizing the rules.

Much is still to be clarified: What are the consequences if a police officer forgets to turn on the camera? In December, the Albuquerque police dismissed an officer who shot and killed a 19-year old: Because he did not activate his camera before his action, there was no video of the incident — this went without criminal charges. “If they fire every officer who doesn’t turn on his uniform camera, they won’t have anyone left on the department,” said the attorney.

Will Tradesmen Wear Body Cameras in the Future?

The manipulation of the recordings could be technically prevented with strict accessibility limits, but should the police officers be allowed to watch themselves in the videos before their testimonies? Police departments could permit their officers to do just that, and thereby open up the possibility for them to adapt their statements to the film material.

Moreover, what is actually recorded is regulated differently from state to state: In many police districts, the activation is coupled with an emergency operation, so that normal citizens are not filmed during routine actions. Of course, when a harmless occurrence does suddenly escalate, which is always possible in the U.S. due to the widespread use of firearms, the recordings will be missing again.

“Another issue is the non-uniform laws that regulate public access to such film,”* says Stanley of the ACLU. In the state of Washington, for example, the public has the right to view complete police films on request. Therefore, the Seattle police recently organized a hack-a-thon to find out how to automatically pixel out certain faces.

Building Supervisor with Camera

That is certainly not trivial: The protection of the private sphere is guaranteed for minors, and upon request, for witnesses, and also for people who are located on private property. Kudos to the one who can program a corresponding algorithm.

Nevertheless, the triumph of body cameras has long since begun — even beyond the police field, where possible. A few months ago, the government of Miami Beach announced that it is outfitting authorized workers with body cameras for electricity meters or building inspections. In past years, there had been cases of corruption in corresponding departments.

Fear of Unjustified Claims

A few court marshals and tradesmen are already wearing the devices to protect themselves from later prosecution. The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a new standard for numerous occupations, from plumbers to real estate agents, who could utilize the devices to protect themselves from unjustified claims.

And in the meantime, body cameras have made their way into Ferguson as well: The activists of WeCopwatch have distributed them to black residents of the city, so that from now on, they can better document abuses by the police.

Camera Data against Racism?

Currently, one of the commissions set up by President Barack Obama is advising a reform of police work, which also pertains to how body cameras can be utilized. One suggestion among them is that the analysis of the data from the recordings could help to identify racist police inspections — for example, if and when above average stops and searches of minorities are depicted.

*Editor’s note: Correctly translated, this quote could not be verified.

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