Spotlight Exclusives

Civil Rights Principles Important to Use of Body-Worn Cameras by Law Enforcement

Wade Henderson, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Wade Henderson, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, posted on

Over the last year we’ve seen a growing movement to address policing practices that have a disproportionate impact on low-income communities, communities of color, and African Americans in particular. These practices, which include “racial profiling,” excessive use of force, and implicit racial bias by law enforcement, have framed the national debate around police reform and prompted a vitally important national conversation on the use of technology specifically body-worn cameras as one possible means to enhance accountability and transparency in policing.

Mobile video cameras are an increasingly ubiquitous tool with the potential to help protect civil rights and build trust between police and the communities they serve. Video footage that documents law enforcement interactions with the public whether gathered through body-worn cameras, weapon-mounted cameras, dashboard cameras, or citizen video of police activities have a valuable role to play in policing. But without the right safeguards, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice.

The arrival of new video equipment does not guarantee that a police agency will better protect the civil rights of the community it serves. Department policy will play a critical role in determining whether and how video footage may be used to hold police accountable. This new technology could also be used to intensify disproportionate surveillance and disproportionate enforcement in heavily policed communities of color.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, joined by a broad coalition of civil rights, privacy, and media rights organizations, produced shared civil rights principles for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement. These principles outline policy and program guidance to provide actual accountability, protect civil rights, and begin to build a relationship of collaboration and trust between police and the communities they serve.

To help ensure that police-operated cameras are used to enhance civil rights, we believe departments must:

Develop their camera policies in public. Police executives and civil rights groups both agree that public input and transparency in this process is critical. Civil rights advocates and the local community as a whole should be engaged while developing policies on body-worn cameras. Current policies must always be made publically available and changes to policy must be made in consultation with the community.

Commit to a set of narrow and well-defined purposes for which the cameras and their footage can be used. The research institute Data & Society warned of the danger body-worn cameras can pose to privacy when combined with facial recognition and other biometric technologies. The combination would give officers far greater visibility into heavily policed communities where cameras will be abundant than into other communities where cameras will be rare.

Specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access, and enforce strict disciplinary protocols for policy violations. While some types of law enforcement interactions (e.g., when attending to victims of domestic violence) may happen off camera, the vast majority of interactions with the public including all that involve the use of force should be captured on video. Departments must also adopt systems to monitor and audit access to recorded footage and secure footage against unauthorized access and tampering.

Make footage available to promote accountability with appropriate privacy safeguards in place. At minimum, video of police use of force should be available upon request and made available to any filmed subject seeking to file a complaint, to criminal defendants, and to the next-of-kin of anyone whose death is related to the events captured on video.

Preserve the independent evidentiary value of officer reports by prohibiting officers from viewing footage before filing their reports. Pre-report viewing could cause an officer to conform the report to what the video appears to show, rather than what the officer actually saw.

Though the focus of the principles is on cameras worn and operated by law enforcement, we must also acknowledge the vital role played by members of the community who choose to record the police. From Staten Island to Cleveland to North Charleston, we have been transfixed by a series of video clips, recorded by bystanders, which capture tragic encounters between police and the people they serve.

We believe there is an important lesson in the fact that bystanders, and not police, held the cameras that let us see those tragic events. Cameras point away from the people who operate them. Body-worn cameras will be trained not on the officers, but on the members of the community that they meet. And this footage will not come equally from all over town. Heavily policed communities of color, where there are more police,will be more heavily recorded.

Thus, while body-worn cameras are an exciting new tool for police accountability, without the appropriate safeguards, we are at risk of compounding the very problems in policing we seek to fix. As we continue this national conversation, we must not forget that body-worn cameras are not a substitute for broader reforms that can address issues of profiling, excessive use of force, and implicit and explicit racial bias.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Wade Henderson is president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Follow him on Twitter at @Wade4Justice. Charlotte Resing, a Leadership Conference legal intern, contributed to this article.

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