Police body cameras at protests raise privacy concerns

They were supposed to add accountability to the police. But critics say they're backfiring and could cause a chilling effect on free speech at protests.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
6 min read

A Los Angeles police officer using a body camera in 2015.

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

With police resorting to violence against people at demonstrations across the country, lawmakers have called for reforms including requiring officers to activate their body cameras during protests. Many of the cases showing police brutality contradict official law enforcement accounts of the incident, prompting a greater demand for accountability and transparency. 

But skeptics of police-worn body cameras aren't convinced that the technology will hold police at protests responsible, and they raise concerns that body cameras at protests could actually serve as a surveillance tool against people exercising their rights to free speech. 

Several major cities, including Seattle, Boston, New York and Minneapolis, have specific policies against police recording with body cameras at protests.

Protesters have long been worried about surveillance at demonstrations, the latest twist being police use of technology like facial recognition and social media monitoring to identify people in crowds. Using body cameras as surveillance tools at protests threaten people's privacy and could have a chilling effect on free speech. 

But the police brutality at some of the several hundred protests in the US has shown the need for recording at demonstrations. It's prompted cities like Seattle to turn around on its policy, with the mayor planning to issue an emergency order requiring officers to have body cameras turned on at protests. National police reforms are also calling for mandatory body cameras.

Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest

If history repeats itself, these calls for body cameras could end up tracking protesters more often than it keeps police accountable, experts warn. 

"On occasion, it reveals some of the problems, but the power dynamics are relatively unchanged," said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing and a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia. "The same tensions will exist with body cameras at protests. Who gets to control them? Who gets to see the footage?"

Body camera history

Body cameras were held up as a way to hold police accountable for misconduct following protests in Ferguson, Missouri, where a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in 2014. 

In 2015, the Justice Department awarded more than $23 million to police departments in 32 states for body cameras, believing that the technology could help "mend the fabric of trust, respect and common purpose" with police.

What's happened in the years since with body cameras has just widened that rift.

Watch this: Explaining the tech and troubles of police body cameras

There have been cases in which body camera videos have shown police misconduct. But some departments have fought tooth-and-nail against releasing footage to the public. 

A union representing New York police sued in 218 to prevent body camera footage from being released to the public without a court order, while victims of police abuse have had to sue police to get footage released. 

Chicago police didn't release body camera footage of officers shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times until a journalist sued for the video's release. 

Police have also been able to selectively choose when cameras are turned on, leading to many cases where people are killed by officers wearing body cameras without any evidence to hold them accountable. 

Police shot and killed David McAtee during a protest earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky, over the death of George Floyd, but the officers involved didn't have their body cameras turned on, according to reports. This led Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer to fire Police Chief Steve Conrad

Instead, body cameras worn by police increasingly have been used by officers as evidence against suspects rather than to provide transparency. 

The multimillion-dollar investment intended to keep a watchful eye on police has ended up becoming another surveillance tool for law enforcement agencies, which, experts say, have come to embrace the body cameras because of their ability to collect evidence.

"The push for body cameras came in the wake of Ferguson, with the feeling that there was so little transparency and accountability with what police were doing in terms of use of force," said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a senior counsel with the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "It hasn't necessarily played out that way."

Upping the appeal for police is the ability to pair that footage with facial recognition systems. A report from OneZero found that at least 1,500 organizations have signed contracts for live facial recognition on body cameras.

"If a body cam is equipped with face recognition, it becomes a very easy tool that police can use to identify the unmasked people who are standing across the protest line from them," said Matthew Guariglia, an Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst.

Body cameras, protests and free speech

Levinson-Waldman helped put together a review of about 30 cities with policies on body cameras and First Amendment activities like protests and demonstrations. 

While 18 cities didn't address recordings at First Amendment events at all, several cities explicitly stated restrictions about recording at protests and demonstrations. Cities like Baltimore and New York have exceptions where they can record if the protests escalate or if someone is committing a crime, but generally, if the demonstration is peaceful, police aren't allowed to use body cameras to identify people. 

Other cities have policies that require body cameras to be activated at protests, like Washington DC and Dallas.  

Recording people at protests can have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, as it intimidates people from speaking out if they can be recorded, tracked and identified through body cameras, experts said. 

"Police body cameras become video evidence of not necessarily what the police are doing, but what the protesters are doing," Guariglia said.

The police reform proposals around body cameras shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all solution, experts said. Some cities may want police to have their cameras activated at all encounters, believing that the surveillance concerns don't outweigh issues of police brutality and holding the officers responsible. 

The nuance will come down to the policies and how they're enforced and how accessible the footage would be to the public. It could mean policies stating that police can only activate their cameras at protests if they are using force, and that these interactions would have to be publicly released. But communities need to be involved in how these policies are shaped. 

"We understand that there are risks and benefits on both sides and different ways this can play out in public," Levinson-Waldman said. "No matter what, it's critical to have language saying that people aren't being recorded because of their involvement in First Amendment activities."

Power of the masses (of cameras)

Considering that the majority of videos showing police misconduct at protests have come from citizens rather than from law enforcement or body cameras, it's questionable how much of an effect on accountability requiring body cameras would have.

Instead, experts have called on more protesters to record police.

Global scenes of Black Lives Matter protests show outrage far beyond US

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Police departments have spent millions of dollars on body cameras, but the videos that have shown police misconduct are coming from citizens, not law enforcement. 

"The place we should be centering technology is in the hands of people who are being policed," the University of the District of Columbia's Ferguson said. "By centering technology on the police, we're not actually getting the accountability that we were asking for." 

There's several advantages to citizens recording police to watch for misconduct instead of relying on body cameras, experts said. These videos are often released to the public immediately through social media, rather than potentially months later after a lawsuit to force officers to release it. 

If there are multiple people recording the encounters, it also provides for a check and balance on official police statements -- as when officers in Buffalo, New York, claimed a 75-year-old man they pushed to the ground, severely injuring him, had actually tripped and fallen.

The biggest advantage for protesters, though, would be that the footage would be harder for police to turn around and use against people demonstrating. Citizens have the right to film police and the same right to protest, the EFF's Guariglia said. 

"Cameras in the hands of protesters are less likely to be used as a surveillance tool than cameras in the hands of police," he said. "So long as police are able to control the cameras and the storage of the footage and equip those cameras with face recognition, they will be more tools of surveillance than they are of accountability." 
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