Body cam

Edward Claughton
PRI Management Group

Openness, transparency, democracy; all good things obviously- the foundation upon which open records law is built and purposed. Some states do it better than others. Some states laws focus on openness, some focus on privacy. Florida is very open while California focuses on one’s privacy. What’s more important?

In some states, if your name is in a police report in any way, whether as a victim, witness, or other, your name remains visible to anyone who sees that report. In other states, your name would be protected from being released to the public.

There are valid arguments on both sides of that coin including the public’s interest in knowing both the government’s actions and what someone told the police about me, versus protecting me as a witness to a crime and not wanting the perpetrator to know who I am. Some states have done their best to strike a balance by writing exemptions into the law for when certain circumstances exist. What they haven’t done however is keep up with technology.

The fact of the matter is we want to know what the heck our government and our elected leaders are doing, and how. At the same time however, we don’t want our personal reputation, safety and overall privacy violated.

social mediaSocial media is nothing new. It’s been around for more than several years now and it alone changes the dynamic of important issues like what constitutes a public record -today- and how long must it be kept? Traditionalists will argue that what constitutes a public record has long been well defined in statute and through case law. Indeed it has- but mostly well before Facebook and Twitter. I would argue the whole paradigm has shifted, especially now that we are talking body-cams on police officers who will be recording life day in and day out, sometimes in the most private moments of one’s life. Are there not important, and new, considerations that need to be accounted for here?

The Police Chief in Salt Lake City stated the following in a paper from the Police Executive Research Forum titled “Implementing a body-worn camera program“:

One of the things we are forgetting is that we already send officers into people’s homes and have them document all these bits of information that we’re worried about recording. If an officer enters someone’s home, they document the condition of the home, especially if it’s a case about a child or involves domestic violence or physical injury. So videos are just a technologically advanced type of police report that should be treated no differently from an initial contact form that we currently fill out every day. The advantage of a camera is now you have a factual representation as opposed to an interpretation by an officer.”

I respectfully disagree (quite a bit). There is a major difference between describing the facts in a police report and showing the inside of someone’s home in a video. A big difference. Police record crime scenes all the time, including inside private residences. But what if it isn’t a crime scene? What if they are just investigating a noise complaint or making a death notification? Does your state’s law take into consideration these “exemptions”?

As for the law, herein exists a need for a new way of thinking. Records management, particularly in the public sector, is and has been woefully behind the times- technologically speaking and common sensibility-wise.

Most states have not yet successfully revised legislation that Officerscovers the new issues surrounding records release and retention which have been created by social media and now, body-cams. There are however some states that are currently scurrying to do so and as a result may be failing to consider all of the ramifications of over-aggressive legislation. The effort to create new laws quickly and efficiently is admirable so long as it doesn’t forget that for every decision there is a consequence and for every action there is a reaction. Has your state thought these through?

There is no doubt that body-cams are here to stay and will one day be the norm, just as computers and cameras are in patrol cars today. We just need to be sure we weigh the issues smartly, efficiently and carefully, without obstructing progress or failing to consider the results of our decisions.

If your going to mandate the use of these kinds of tools in a profession, roll them out in way that enables testing, discussion, review, feedback (good and bad), and smart policy based on your findings.

PRI Management Group is a public safety records and technology consultancy that helps agencies navigate these challenging issues and implement policy, technology and performance in a legally compliant and cost-effective manner. We have trained and/or consulted over 750 police agencies since 2008.

See our research on body-cams here including the PERF report.

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