The reality is this: police departments across California are increasingly considering using body cameras to assist officers in in their investigations, in the apprehension of dangerous criminals, and for one other very important reason — to protect themselves from false allegations of police brutality. Still, as this Associate Press article by Tami Abdollah indicates, body cameras present a myriad of significant policy and legal questions and do not come without controversy. For example, weighing a citizen’s constitutional rights against the potential benefit to the community if cameras are used, or the potential harm to the community if cameras aren’t used. Departments considering the use of body cameras will also have to determine whether officers should have the discretion to turn the record feature on and off and edit the video, and whether they are required to give citizens notice prior to hitting the record button. Finally, departments must determine the length of time the recording will be retained and whether it would be subject to a Public Records Act request.
While many people have opinions about whether and how body cameras should be used by law enforcement officials, one thing is certain: in the next five to ten years, we will begin to see many court opinions addressing these and other related issues. There is no doubt body cameras can provide significant evidentiary value in court and have the added benefit of potentially improving the community’s perception of officers and the department. Yet, the question remains: Will the courts support the application of this type of technology as a tool for law enforcement? What about police unions? Privacy advocates?
So, if a citizen finds themselves interacting with a police officer, should they smile? Perhaps… they may be on camera.