Who gets to see the body cam footage your department collects? It’s important to have a consistent policy in place before it’s needed. Here are some key issues you’ll want to consider.
If you’re going to have a policy for how and when you’re sharing data, you first need to address proper procedure for actual handling and usage of the cameras and resulting recordings. Otherwise, you’ll end up having to explain why you had video in one situation, and not in another, similar one. It’s possible for inconsistent usage to create the illusion of secrecy, when really it was just a lack of foresight.
For this reason, you’ll want to set clear requirements so that every officer knows specifics about where to place cameras, when to activate them, and who’s tasked with handling the resulting footage. Have designated officers in charge of issuing and maintaining cameras, as well, so there’s no question who’s allowed to tinker with them, and who isn’t. Having this information in place ahead of time makes it clear to cooperating agencies and local citizens that you’re engaged in best practices when it comes to police work and chain of evidence in the digital age.
When it comes to sharing footage, the most important consideration is state law regarding public access to information. These laws, sometimes known as “sunshine laws”, vary widely, and are meant to provide transparency so that citizens know what their government agencies are doing. However, it’s important to balance sunshine with the right to privacy. The Bureau of Justice Assistance gives the example that you might not want to share footage that shows the interior of someone’s home.
While it’s important not to jeopardize an open case by sharing too much information, if you can set written limitations to protect ongoing investigations, sharing what you can may increase the public’s confidence in your work. Just ensure that your policy clearly reflects the procedure you plan to use. If you’re going to release any portion of your recordings to the public, develop a consistent timeline for releasing data. Stick to it.
Lastly, determine if officers are allowed to review the videos, and under what circumstances. We’ve already discussed the benefits of using footage as a training aid. However, there is disagreement about when officers should review recordings. On one hand, there may be value in getting an officer’s account of an incident before the officer watches the footage, in order to identify any difference between the incident as it transpired and the officer’s perception of what was going on. On the other hand, some departments have found that letting officers review the videos before writing their reports leads to fewer inconsistencies (and fewer issues in court.)
By thinking through these factors, you can write a clear, well-designed policy for the collection and proper use of interview and video footage now, before you have a thorny issue on your hands.