Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Police Body Camera Issues and Concerns

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, while the federal government is pushing local and state law enforcement agencies to use body cameras for their law enforcement officers, federal law enforcement officers are not using such cameras when performing their own LE duties. According to the article, this is because the federal government hasn't adapted policies for the use of body cams and the storage of the video.

This is causing another issue because federal law enforcement relies heavily on state and local law enforcement officers (LEO's) in their task forces. So for example, local or state LEO's assigned to a U.S. Marshal's Fugitive Task Force would not be allowed to have on body cams even if doing so was the policy of their own agency. 

Is this a double standard that LEO's who fall under the U.S. Justice Department are not using body cameras themselves? Even though the Justice Department urges (through millions in grants and political pressure) that state and local police agencies must use these body cameras? The article also makes one think about some of the issues related to the widespread use of police body cams that agencies are dealing with:

  • How long will agencies have to retain the video?
  • Is every recording made by the police public record?  For example, what happens if an officer is called to a house for a domestic disturbance and there is no probable cause to make an arrest?  Is the video footage from the officer's body camera public record?  Can any citizen view the video recording taken inside the person's home even if no arrest was made? Is there a fourth amendment issue?
  • How will innocent/non-related citizens captured in the officer's video recording be handled? If they are not directly involved in the officer's investigation but are captured in the video will their faces be blurred out? 
  • Is it fair to say that patrol officers have to wear body cams but not SWAT or special units? How do agencies balance the need to protect tactics from becoming public versus the intent of the cameras in the first place -to provide transparency and accountability?

As police body cameras become the norm, for police agencies, there will certainly be legal and policy challenges ahead.


Having worked as a local cop and a Fed, I can understand how this issue could impact law enforcement.  What isn't widely known outside of the cop world is how heavily federal law enforcement relies on their state and local partners. Afterall, there just are not enough federal officers to do it alone and it benefits the Feds to have local buy-in and access to state and local knowledge and resources.

 If the lack of a federal policy on body cams prevents state and local cops from being on federal task forces, there essentially will be no task force.  I also realize these decisions are made above the pay grade of the LEO's themselves and politics play a huge role in this issue.

Federal task forces are in every major city. I can see the challenges for the local or state police agency with their own officers on these task forces. What is likely to happen is the local police agencies will exempt their officers assigned to the task force from any body camera policies. This will allow their department members to be in step with their federal partners and remain a part of the task force. 

Forfeiting local agency policy on body cams in order to remain part of the federal task forces could prove problematic.

What if during a task force operation the local officer is involved in a shooting? It isn't Federal Agent Smith who was involved in the shooting it is Officer Smith of the city police department. 

Even if the officer is assigned to the federal task force, he or she is still a member of that community's police agency. Just because the activity was conducted by a federal task force, the community will still expect accountability from the local agency that employs that individual police officer. 

If that officer's agency has body cams in use by its patrol officers, questions will be raised why there was no video just because the shooting took place by a member assigned to a special detail. Additionally, as an officer on that task force, I would want the video for my personal protection from false accusations. 

I understand the Feds argument that most of their officers are doing investigative work so they don't need to wear body cameras. Many federal law enforcement jobs are non-uniformed jobs, but many are uniformed positions with a high degree of public contact.

For example, The Veterans Administration , the US Mint, Border Patrol, Wildlife, Secret Service, US Capitol Police all have uniformed officers. The Federal Protective Service (FPS) that guards thousands of federal buildings are uniformed officers as well. According to their web site ( the FPS responds to over 500,000 calls a year. 

Yes, it is the state and local uniformed patrol officer who has the most contact with citizens, but in my opinion, the federal government should be practicing what they preach. Afterall, it is the federal government that is pushing this issue the hardest. It has become part of political promises and a very hot topic. 

If our federal government is spending millions of dollars on body camera grants to persuade local police agencies to use body cameras, shouldn't they be leading the way? 

It would send a strong message that body cams are a priority if the Feds could create their own policies and begin issuing body cams to their own LEO's, beginning with federal uniformed police officers.


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