Body Cameras: Police Accountability versus Civilian Privacy

Body Cameras


Body cameras on police officers is something that we’ve written about a number of times in the past. Last year both Detroit and Bay City equipped their officers with body cameras by the end of the year. Lansing has begun that process too. And they certainly weren’t the first departments to do so. In an effort to reconcile the nation’s police departments with the people they serve, law enforcement across the U.S. began to consider the use of body cameras for their police officers.


Although expensive and time consuming in many ways, there are benefits that cannot be quantified with dollar bills. Benefits like significant reductions in the use of force and vast increases in accountability and public trust. While that all sounds wonderful, there are other, less considered issues that are coming to the forefront with the use of body cameras. Specifically, the issue of privacy.


The first pilot program was initiated in Seattle in December of 2014. With the country’s attention still riveted on the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, it made sense to invest in something that may heal some of the rifts between police and civilians. “Enhance trust between communities and police” as President Obama put it, when he announced the $75 million initiative to help police departments all over the US put cameras on their cops.


Now that there is millions of hours of recorded interactions between police officers and the general public, we are beginning to see the other side of this coin. The dark side of the moon, as it were. Because while that camera is recording everything that officer says and does, keeping them accountable for their actions and words, it’s also recording the people they interact with. The homes they walk into. The children they talk to. The private information of civilians gathered during a person’s most vulnerable moments.


According to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, a member of the public is free to request access to previously unshared government records. This, much like the theory behind body cameras for cops, was put in place in 1976 to promote transparency and accountability. And in many cases it has. But when it comes to members of the public requesting recordings that contain an individual’s private information, does it become an invasion of privacy?


So where do we draw the line?


The question now, is where do we draw the line? Should an abused child or a victim of domestic abuse have their tragic story put on Facebook for others to gawk at? Should an under-aged prostitute, herself a victim of sex trafficking, have the intimate details of her abuse later made public against her wishes. Is the right to information more important than the right to privacy? This is a very difficult question, and one that each state, and each department, is trying to answer.


In December of 2015, Senator Ken Horn introduced Senate Bill 0634, which aimed to exempt from disclosure any recordings captured by body-worn cameras. Like so many other bills of it’s kind around the country, it went nowhere. As it stands, there are not many police departments in Michigan that use body worn cameras, in part because of the upfront cost of the equipment and also partly because of the long term cost of data storage and time needed to review footage.


While those two are the primary reasons, there is that other, less discussed issue that serves to unsettle law enforcement officials. The fact that a body worn camera follows that officer EVERYWHERE and collects EVERY piece of data it encounters, regardless of how invasive. (The officers do have the ability to switch their cameras to the off position.) This is data that some say is just another form of government surveillance, while others argue that it violates privacy.


This dilemma will have to be addressed at some point. Every police department that chooses to take up the baton with regard to officer accountability will also need to decide exactly where they stand on protecting civilian privacy as well. As a state, Michigan will have to decide what we prioritize – police transparency, or civilian privacy? And figure out where we draw the line.


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