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Op-Ed: City Must Step in to Save Body Camera Program (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

Police Report Card Series New York

By Iman Abid

As of this month, the first police body cameras are in operation in Rochester. Our city deserves great credit for being among the first to adopt a brand-new technology specifically intended to increase police accountability. When body cameras came to national attention after the killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, Mayor Lovely Warren showed tremendous initiative by announcing that Rochester’s entire police force would be outfitted with them. But somewhere between the mayor’s announcement and the rollout this month, the police department lost sight of the fact that the whole purpose of body cameras is to increase trust between communities and police. And the department’s current body camera policies undercut the value of Rochester’s investment and stifle the reforms we were promised.

Flaws in the program have been reported on nationally. The Leadership Conference for Civil Rights just released a report evaluating the effectiveness of body camera programs run by 50 large police departments across the country. Rochester’s program, unfortunately, received only mixed results. This came as no surprise to community advocates who have been warning the police department about flaws in the policy all along to little avail. Now the responsibility for ensuring the program’s success falls back to the city, which must push for revised policies that maximize effectiveness and minimize abuse.

In many ways the current policies defy common sense. For body cameras to meaningfully improve police accountability, naturally people must trust that officers are not choosing what to record or manipulating images, nor using recordings to revise or manipulate their own statements. But under the current policies, officers don’t have to justify turning off their cameras, they can watch recordings before writing official reports, and there is nothing about logging or auditing footage. Moreover, the policies say very little about mitigating one of the main risks associated with body cameras: That they will raise the already worrying level of government surveillance. The current policies give cops near total control to record what they choose, including private moments in people’s homes, in schools and in doctors’ offices. And there’s no requirement to delete any of this footage from the bank, even if it’s totally irrelevant to any investigation. That’s certainly something to feel squeamish about. Soon there will be 504 police body cameras on Rochester’s streets, and these oversights must be addressed. The city must revise policies so officers cannot turn off cameras without reasonable justification or view footage before writing statements.

The program must be subject to an audit. And barring an emergency, officers must stop recording if people don’t consent, and footage that has not been flagged for investigation must be deleted. The need for police accountability is no less pressing today than when the mayor first announced body cameras for Rochester. Cameras are not a panacea for the broken relationship between communities and police. But if the city commits to ensuring its success, the body camera program can be a powerful investment in public safety.

Iman Abid is interim director of the Genesee Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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