People's Police Report
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Police Body Cameras: Friend or Foe of Civil Liberties?
It looks as if Portland Police will get body cameras. In September, the Oregonian reported Mayor Hales, Police Commissioner, wants the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to have officers wearing the small cameras within the next year. On December 10, Council discussed allocating $800,000 originally slotted for additional in-car video systems to buy body cameras, with a tentative vote set for January 7. In November, Lt. John Scruggs from the Chief's office told the Training Advisory Council that Portland Police loved their pilot test of the cameras because they help maintain calm between police and civilians. He also says he wants to involve the whole community in a conversation. However, that conversation only began at the December Council hearing, which delayed the creation of a Request for Proposals while policy concerns are hashed out. The PPB is working with the ACLU to change a state law that says you can't record a conversation without informing all parties, but that change may not pass during the 2015 Legislature.
Are police body cameras a good idea? Portland Copwatch (PCW) has remained neutral because we believe there are too many unanswered questions and not enough research on their effects on privacy and Miranda rights.
Taser International, a major vendor of body cameras, funded one of the only methodological studies done to date, in the city of Rialto, CA-- a widely cited report the US Department of Justice noted was not peer reviewed. Using a test and a control group, this study found camera use led to a 59% reduction in use of force incidents and a 87.5% reduction in complaints. However, these reductions are based on the difference from one year to the next, not the difference between the control and test groups. Moreover, since this study was funded by a vendor, it leaves its results open to question. Although the findings may be correct, the company stands to make a fortune selling cameras for individual officers, as they did with their namesake weapon. In a quasi-experimental study in Mesa, Arizona State University faculty found officers wearing body cams conducted significantly fewer stops, frisks and arrests, but wrote more tickets than officers without cameras.
But what about civil liberty and privacy issues? On March 13, We Copwatch, a nationally focused group in the Bay Area, wrote a lengthy piece calling CopCams just another surveillance tool in the post 9/11 era. They noted that incidents like the controversial police shooting of a homeless man in Albuquerque happened despite officers there having body cameras, and that use of force hasn't gone down in Oakland even with the cameras and a federal Monitor watching.
Stop LAPD Spying, a group in Los Angeles, notes that about 90 of 400 or so vehicle cameras there were disabled when their antennas were broken off. If Portland is going to go ahead with body cameras, it has a lot of work to develop policies that balance the protection of privacy rights (including cops') with the ability to monitor police.
The ACLU states that while it is generally against the proliferation of surveillance cameras in American life, police body cams are different because of their potential to act as a check against abuse of power by police officers. The ACLU insists that policies must be in place to protect against abuses.
These include: Preventing cops from editing what is recorded; protecting rights to privacy; not retaining the data longer than necessary; subjects' ability to access the footage; rules for releasing footage to the public; and technological controls to prevent the destruction of video.
PCW is concerned the tapes will be used more to support convictions than to prove misconduct, and we don't have enough time to teach all 1 million people in the Portland metro area about their right to remain silent.
Portland Copwatch is a grassroots, volunteer organization promoting police accountability through citizen action.