Editorial: Police body cams good for officers, citizens

The Detroit News

Detroit police officers will start wearing body cameras this summer. Over the next year and a half, 1,500 cameras will be deployed throughout the department to record interactions between officers and citizens.

It’s a smart move, and will increase accountability for both parties involved in a confrontation. It will equally protect officers and citizens.

But now that the largest city in the state is embracing the technology, it’s critical to ensure the use of the cameras is governed by robust policies that clearly outline who views footage, how long it is stored and what kinds of privacy protections are in place.

The Detroit City Council and Mayor Mike Duggan approved the decision. But some guidelines should quickly follow the deployment of the cameras. Without them police body cameras run the risk of causing just as many problems as they’ll solve.

A basic question is to determine how continuously cameras will be recording. It would seem that either continuous recording throughout an officer’s shift or continuous recording once a citizen interaction has begun makes the most sense.

If the latter is chosen, however, cameras might miss unplanned interactions, which can often spark the most controversy. Lack of continuous coverage also increases chances the videos can be manipulated without anyone noticing.

At the same time, continuously recording throughout an officer’s shift raises privacy issues for the public and for officers. Crime victims, particularly victims of rape, abuse and other sensitive crimes, might have very good reasons for not wanting their interactions with officers recorded. Those concerns should be respected.

For officers, too, it’s difficult to be recorded almost 100 percent of their time, part of which consists of normal activities like eating or getting to know coworkers. Depending on video retention policies, these mundane videos could be misused within departments to threaten officers or elicit other kinds of behavior.

That’s just one of the reasons retention policies governing footage are also critical.

For the most part, footage should be stored for relatively short periods of time — weeks, not months. Videos that include fights or controversial engagements are the exception. And very few, if any, officers should view them. This offers the best protection for both citizens and officers.

Citizens on recordings should have access to their footage for as long as the government also has access.

Further, the use of recordings should be allowed only in internal and external investigations of misconduct, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, and where there might be reasonable suspicion a recording contains evidence of a crime.

Another critical determination will be to what extent does the Freedom of Information Act apply to these recordings. That’s a question that must be seriously debated to balance the public’s right to know with the privacy rights of those who casually encounter police.

Arbitrating that issue likely will require an independent review body. A bill introduced last year in the Legislature would make FOIA access very limited, with exceptions for those who are subjects of footage or those who’ve had property seized or damaged in a confrontation related to the video.

These kinds of provisions make sense and ensure that privacy is still being protected even as officers and the public become more accountable.