Op-Ed: Body Cameras are Reform in Action (Rochester Democrat & Chronicle)
By KaeLyn Rich
In a tense moment for police-community relations, Rochester is emerging as a leader in reform.
Mayor Lovely Warren announced that the city’s entire police force will wear body cameras — making Rochester among the largest forces in the state to adopt the technology wholesale.
Body cameras give our city many reasons to be hopeful. Communities, advocates and elected officials all agree they can help mend police-community relations damaged after high profile incidents of deadly force by cops. Both Mayor Warren and City Council President Loretta Scott also acknowledge that community input is key to making sure they are effective, not abusive.
And with body cameras in the national spotlight, the eyes of the country will be on cities like Rochester that are ahead of the curve in using the technology.
But much responsibility comes with being a leader. In our rush to adopt this new technology, privacy and accountability considerations must not be overlooked.
New technology can intrude in as-yet-unseen ways on privacy. There is limited research on the impact of body cameras on officer behavior, and few police departments across the country have written policies that could serve as a model.
City leaders propose full use of body cameras following the June 2015 budget process. This is an ambitious move that requires explicit limits and oversight to ensure body cameras are used only to further accountability.
Any legislation or policy passed must be broad enough to accommodate rapidly changing technology and allow for adjustments informed by on-the-ground experience.
But a few essential principles are clear. First, to meaningfully improve police accountability, body camera programs must minimize the possibility of officers manipulating or deleting recordings. There should be a presumption against officers for failing to record required interactions, unless there is evidence of mechanical malfunction.
Second, with a new technology that lets cops record people inside their homes, classrooms and even hospital rooms, we should be cautious about recording police-community interactions and diligent in deleting recordings without evidentiary value.
People should be notified that they are being recorded and have the opportunity to consent or refuse whenever possible. Body cameras should not be used to coerce witness or victim cooperation, monitor officers’ job performance or for community surveillance.
Finally, the police department must be transparent and willing to hold its officers accountable for misconduct captured by a body camera—from wrongful use of force to failure to request consent when required —or this investment will be wasted.
The city needs space for course correction in passing body camera legislation. But these guidelines are a start. And combined with the widespread support and focus on community input in implementing the program, there is every sign that Rochester can be a model for bringing about real policing reform while much of the nation is in crisis.
Rich is the director of the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.