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Body cams hold police accountable. Here’s why some people don’t want the footage released.by Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer
Privacy

WATCH  | Victims' rights may be lost in debate over making police body camera footage public

Editor's Note: All of the videos featured in this piece were released to the public without blurring or obscuring the individuals involved

WATCH | Police body cam videos are a new kind of reality TV -- this video posted by a Florida police department is a prime example.  This officers rescued a woman and children from a domestic shooting. They weren't asked for consent even though their faces are shown.  


Jennifer Storm (pictured here at center) is the Victim Advocate for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She's helped to shape laws to protect victims. To her, police body cameras and the policies related to them are the new front line.

"A body camera is going to get every single thing the officer sees. It's bad reality TV, incredibly traumatizing for these families and survivors."

Jennifer Storm, Victim Advocate

'Death becomes a hashtag'

When body cam videos are made public, it can visit shame, embarrassment and fear upon victims of crime -- especially in cases of sexual assaults, domestic violence cases or cases where someone dies and it's caught on camera.

Storm said there is an emotional price paid by victims.

"All of a sudden, your loved one's death becomes a hashtag. And it becomes seen by millions of people and forwarded and re-tweeted and Facebooked."

WATCH | A Pennsylvania family knows the emotional cost.  After a police officer charged in this man's death was acquitted, the footage captured on camera was made public by the district attorney's office. Now, his last moments are a viral clip that haunts his family.  

ACLU adds to the debate

The American Civil Liberties Union is also getting into the debate about body cameras. But the organization centered on privacy takes an interesting stance.  

It supports police body cameras as a check on abuse, believing 99% of the footage should never see the light of day.  But in situations where there is a question about whether police did something wrong, the organization supports releasing the tape, even against the wishes of a victim or their family. 

"The real challenge is balancing how to get the advantages of these cameras without turning it into a privacy meltdown."

Jay Stanley, American Civil Liberties Union

WATCH | The ACLU's take on the release of body camera footage came into play during a court case in New Hampshire, involving the police shooting of a man who was killed after charging officers.  His family wanted to keep the footage private. The ACLU was among those who argued to make the video public.  

Tough call?

Jay Stanley with the ACLU says cases like the New Hampshire police-involved shooting require tough calls.  

"We think in those situations the default should be that they should be made public because of the overwhelming public interest in doing that oversight, and it can't be vetoed by the family or the victims themselves," he said.

Public shaming?

Police departments often get veto power on whether body cam footage is released to the public.  But policies differ from agency to agency.  

In some cities you'll never see one second of footage -- others use the video to highlight the situations their officers encounter.

In some scenarios, releasing that video puts a citizen in a bad light is considered by some to be the equivalent of public shaming.  


Lack of written policies

A study paid for by the Department of Justice found many police departments across the country have no specific written policies for how body cameras should be used and when video should go public.  

The study was done by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). Lindsey Miller Goodison was part of the research team. When asked about the lack of written policies, she said, "It was very concerning, because obviously we want agencies to have good strong policies in place."

Get consent

PERF isn't in the business of bossing around police departments.  But its study did offer some strong suggestions:

  • Tell citizens when cameras are rolling
  • Get consent
  • Draft firm policies for when the video can go out into the world

"You're dealing with people who are in very vulnerable situations and those agencies need to think about how they're going to handle those types of situations at the outset," Goodison said.

No federal standard

The learning curve when it comes to policy body cameras is huge.  The NYPD told Circa and Full Measure it is still working out its body camera policy.  

Based on research compiled by the Battered Women's Justice Project, 16 states have no laws on the books, and 17 states have at least one law related to body cameras.

And there is no federal standard for how and when they should be used, or in what situations the video should be released.

Victims should have a voice

Jonathan Thompson heads up the National Sheriffs' Association. He doesn't see a need for a federal standard on body camera usage.

"We think each locality should have the opportunity to decide what they need and what works best for them," he said.

Thompson believes victims should have a voice in the policies around body cameras, saying their input is part of a delicate balancing act.

"Who wins? Is it the victim or is it law enforcement or is it transparency? I think there is no real correct answer."

Jonathan Thompson, National Sheriffs Association

Shouldn't fear calling 911

But with hit-or-miss policies depending on where you live, and an ongoing debate about body cameras, what happens when someone needs help?

That's the question Jennifer Storm keeps coming back to.

"They shouldn't have to think, 'Oh my god, if I call 911 is it going to be filmed and am I going to end up on the internet?'  Public safety should never come with those kinds of questions or consequences, ever," Storm said.