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Who Should Own Police Body Camera Videos?

May 24, 2017
Originally published on May 26, 2017 2:20 pm
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There are concerns that letting police control their body camera videos is a conflict of interest. Body cameras are now generating millions of hours of video. The videos are usually stored by the departments that create them. It's been done that way from the start. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on why that practice is coming under scrutiny.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There's a body camera video out of Fort Worth, Texas. It made some headlines a few months back. It involves a white officer making a controversial arrest of a black woman, and the arrest is pretty rough.

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WILLIAM MARTIN: Get on the ground. Get on the ground now.

KASTE: In a few minutes into this video, there's this fascinating moment as the cop is also arresting the woman's grown daughter. She's been recording the scene on her phone, and the cop points out that he's also recording.

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MARTIN: You see this right here?

BREA HYMOND: You're on Live.

MARTIN: This is a camera, too.

HYMOND: You're on Live.

KASTE: And now here's the key moment. Listen to her response.

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HYMOND: Police cameras ain't real.

KASTE: Police cameras ain't real, she says.

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HYMOND: Police cameras ain't real. They're built for you.

LEE MERRITT: I thought exactly. I thought she actually got it.

KASTE: That's the family's lawyer, Lee Merritt. He's also black, and he does a lot of civil rights cases. And he says of course people see body cameras as being built for the police. After all, he says, look at what happened when he asked the Fort Worth police for this very video.

MERRITT: They denied it, stating that it's dangerous to release the video because it was pertaining to minors, that there was an ongoing investigation, that they didn't want to interrupt it.

KASTE: But then somebody leaked the video to the lawyer. He passed it on to reporters. And when it came out, the police dropped charges against his client. Just last Friday, the Fort Worth police chief accused two of his senior officers of being the leakers. They're both African-American, as is the chief.

Alex Vitale is an associate professor at Brooklyn College who runs a research group called the Policing and Social Justice Project. He says it's a growing problem, this sense of arbitrariness about who gets access to video.

ALEX VITALE: If I'm in it, can I see it? How does defense counsel get access to it? Often this is not spelled out in the regulations. It's just assumed that it's the property of the police and that they make the determination about who and how and why it can be seen.

KASTE: He says we adopted these body cameras as a form of accountability, a way to keep tabs on police. But in practice, the cameras are now becoming just another tool for law enforcement for fighting crime and making cases against suspects.

In practice, the videos are now mainly used as evidence against members of the public. And that's reinforced by the fact that the police have easy access to the videos. He says just imagine when police add facial recognition to that mix. That's why Vitale recently wrote an article saying maybe it's time to hit the reset button on this whole system.

VITALE: And what I wanted to do was try to question that basic assumption and suggest that if it's really a tool for accountability, that perhaps the footage should be under the control of an independent agency.

KASTE: Which independent agency? Vitale says that can be figured out locally. But the important thing is eliminating the conflict of interest or even the perception of a conflict. An independent agency would be able to hold back videos for good reasons - say, to protect an investigation into police misconduct. But it wouldn't be the police making that call.

STEVE TUTTLE: Yeah, yeah.

KASTE: That's Steve Tuttle, spokesman for Axon, a company that does cloud services for police videos. The videos are encrypted, and the police departments hold the digital keys. Has Axon ever set up an account that gives those keys to some other non-police entity?

TUTTLE: No, not at all. Not that I'm aware of in any way shape or form have I seen that or even had that proposed.

KASTE: It would be a radical change, and there would be some downsides for the police. For one thing, they wouldn't have the option anymore of releasing positive videos, the kind you see more and more on the evening news.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: When the boy suddenly fell in, the officer jumped into action. His body camera actually captured the rescue.

KASTE: And there are other reasons the police would likely be reluctant to give up control. Ronal Serpas is the former police chief of New Orleans where he introduced body cams for all patrol officers.

RONAL SERPAS: By and large, it really wouldn't matter to me who owned the video, if you will. But what could never be limited to the police would be the ability to go back and look at those videos.

KASTE: But that's just it. Should law enforcement really be the main function of these cameras? Alex Vitale says they were introduced as a way to keep an eye on the police. But with the police controlling the video, people are going to assume that the cameras are really here to keep an eye on the public. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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