On Saturday, Jan. 31, the New York Civil Liberties Union will testify on police body cameras during a White House hearing on 21st century policing. In its testimony, the NYCLU encourages police departments to adopt sensible and enforceable policies that ensure body cameras are used for the limited purpose of maximizing officer accountability, with privacy protections and oversight to prevent abuse of the technology.

“Body cameras should be a great step toward police reform and accountability but only if their use is accompanied by deliberate, transparent policies that protect both officers and the public,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “Many Americans feel like this is a desperate time for police-community relations, but a complex technology like body cameras can’t be a quick fix. We need clear guidelines, limits and oversight of their use to ensure body cameras are used only to further transparency and accountability and, ultimately, protect both the public and police officers.”

Saturday’s hearing takes place in Cincinnati and is one of seven public meetings of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, events taking place across the country where experts on policing are invited to share their expertise on how to strengthen the relationships between local police and the communities they are supposed to protect and serve. The Obama administration created the task force by executive order last month after several high-profile incidents of deadly force by police gained national attention, including the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.

In 2014, body cameras were tested or used by 63-out-of-500 police departments surveyed by the Department of Justice and the Police Executive Research Forum, and the NYPD – the largest municipal police force in the country – recently announced a body camera pilot program. But no reliable studies have been conducted to examine the impact of body cameras on officer behavior, and few police departments have written policies governing their use. In the rush to adopt this new technology, privacy and accountability considerations are being overlooked. Therefore, the NYCLU recommends that the Department of Justice fund pilot programs to establish best practices.

In order to meaningfully improve police-community relations, the NYCLU specifically recommends that body camera programs minimize the possibility of officer interference with recordings, such as manipulating or deleting images. Programs must also be limited to promoting officer accountability. For example, body cameras should not be used to coerce witness or victim cooperation, monitor officers’ job performance or as a tool of community surveillance.

As an emerging technology with the potential to intrude in significant and as-yet-unseen ways on privacy, body cameras require rigorous rules governing where and when they should be used, and how their recordings should be stored. The NYCLU recommends that the Department of Justice establish strict privacy protections, including allowing people to refuse to be recorded except in situations such as a police raid or execution of a warrant.

“Body cameras will allow police to record people inside their homes, classrooms – even hospital rooms,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller, who will be testifying on Saturday. “Making sure that people know they are being recorded and giving them the opportunity to consent or refuse whenever possible will help ensure body cameras become a tool for accountability instead of a tool for abuse.”

The NYCLU will testify at a panel beginning at 10:45 a.m. at the Great Hall inside Tangeman University Center on the University of Cincinnati’s campus. The other panelists represent law enforcement agencies and associations around the country: the Greenville Police Department, the Bay Area Rapid Transit and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association.

Members of the public are invited to attend the session and ask questions. This event will be live streamed on Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The following is a summary of the NYCLU’s recommendations:

  • Fund pilot programs to gather data on the impact of body cameras on officer behavior and identify best practices, including when and how to activate the cameras for maximum impact and minimum invasion of privacy.
  • Ensure body camera programs are designed to maximize officer accountability. Create a presumption against the officer for failing to record an interaction when required to do so, unless there is evidence of mechanical malfunction. Use body cameras not only to record force but also to record proof of officer conduct, such as requesting consent before conducting certain searches (as required in several states, with legislation pending in New York City).
  • Establish independent oversight and a clear and limited purpose for use of body cameras. Only record enforcement- or investigation-related interactions between uniformed or plainclothes police and members of the public.
  • Protect privacy, including putting people on notice that they are being recorded and, absent stated circumstances, allow people to refuse consent to be recorded.
  • Establish appropriate access and retention rules that ensure footage is available when needed but not retained indefinitely, through research and input from privacy experts.

Read the full testimony on the NYCLU’s website at: http://www.nyclu.org/content/testimony-regarding-risks-of-police-body-worn-cameras