Body-Worn Cameras for Law Enforcement Officers: Many Questions, Few Answers

By: Leonard J. Dietzen, III

01.06.15

Public outcry for the wide-spread implementation of body-worn cameras (BWCs) by law enforcement officers is growing louder due to recent events. Before an agency even considers the costly implementation of this technology many questions must be answered on an agency by agency basis. The first and most important question is: What is the agency’s goal in implementing a BWC program? Is it to increase capabilities of the collection of evidence, increase public confidence and transparency, increase police accountability, increase officer safety, or all of the above?

After an agency decides in favor of implementing a BWC system there are many factors to consider: type of camera to be purchased; video quality; recording limitations, camera placement; policies to cover the program; officer training in the use of the cameras; staff training in storage and retrieval; maintenance of hardware; costs of hardware, training and data storage. Beyond these practical considerations are more thorny legal issues which each agency will have to resolve.

Florida Public Records Law requires that “any records made or received by any public agency in the course of its official business [be] available for inspection.” Audio-visual recordings made by officers wearing BWCs will be considered public records and the agency would be responsible for the storing these records and retrieving them in response to public records requests. Both audio and video data require much computer hard-drive space. The agency might have to create a database specifically for maintaining these records and might also have to hire additional personnel at great expense. Alternately, the agency could hire a third-party vendor to organize, maintain and retrieve the data. The agency should be careful to draft storage, maintenance, retrieval and destructions policies that comply with the Florida Public Records Law and applicable state law retention schedules.

Before implementing a BWC program, the agency will need to draft specific policies to address each element of the program. Technical issues will need to be addressed. Will the data need to be saved to a database? If so, who decides which data to save? Will it be the officer or her supervisor? Will supervisors review all data recorded by officers, conduct random spot checks or only in response to a complaint? Personnel issues will also need to be addressed. Would an officer be able to refuse to wear a BWC? When should an officer activate his camera? Does the officer have the ability to review or edit the video before submitting it to the database? These issues affect not only to the officers wearing the BWCs, but also to the public they serve.

Florida law allows recording of video in public places without consent, but audio recordings generally require consent. Law enforcement officers have certain exemptions to this law when they are conducting criminal investigations or responding to calls. However, not all contact between law enforcement officers and the public takes place within the context of those circumstances. The circumstances under which a citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy when encountering an officer with a BWC will have to be addressed by policy.

Agencies may be tempted to respond to the public’s demand by quickly implementing a BWC program. However, a more prudent approach is for each agency to conduct research, weigh all of the options and carefully consider the ramifications of each one before implementing a body-worn camera program.

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