clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

You can put body cameras on police — but who controls the footage?

Police departments around the country are buying and using body cameras for their officers — partly in response to the public outcry over the deaths of Michael Brown and other unarmed men in 2014, which prompted calls for "cop cams" as a way to promote police accountability.

But as police departments move cop cams into the field, the an important question becomes whether there are things that shouldn't be recorded to protect civilians' privacy. And if so, who controls the footage — and will police be able to manipulate it?

Vox covered this problem earlier this year, in a video about police dashboard and body cameras:

In Seattle, one of the major police departments that's rolling out body cameras, the department held a "hackathon" last week to find an automated, technological solution to the privacy problem. As reported in Slate, the programmers that participated in the hackathon focused on ways to automatically redact police footage so that, for example, civilians' faces and license plate numbers were blurred.

With this fix, local officials would still need to make decisions about what gets blurred: they wouldn't be legally obligated to blur faces of adults in public spaces, for example, but it might be a good idea to do so for ethical reasons. Still, the fundamental appeal of automatic redaction for a city government is pretty clear. If you can write an automated program that takes care of any privacy concerns, you can release body-camera footage to the public en masse. Without an automated solution, the city would have to rely on the police department to edit the footage — which opens the door to manipulation.

Unfortunately, as long as police officers are able to control the on/off switch on their cameras and departments have access to the video after it's taken, automatic redaction doesn't totally eliminate the potential for manipulating footage.