Creating New Privacy Expectations For Body Camera Footage Will Only Carve More Holes In Police Accountability
from the one-of-the-few-times-law-enforcement-shows-an-interest-in-privacy dept
As police body cameras head towards becoming as commonplace as dash cams, privacy concerns still remain mostly unaddressed. It’s not that law enforcement officers are in need of privacy protections, but the people they interact with — especially inside their homes — are. Unfortunately, most of the discussion about privacy concerns tends to be headed by law enforcement agencies looking for ways to prevent the public from accessing recordings. There’s very little genuine concern for the public’s privacy (much of what law enforcement does relies on minimal privacy expectations). Instead, there’s only useful concern.
Bob Collins, a blogger for Minnesota Public Radio, is expressing his concerns about the privacy implications of publicly-released body cam recordings. Unfortunately, his “test case” doesn’t do much to inform the unaddressed issues.
A video of a Duluth (MN) police officer talking a young man out of committing suicide was posted to Facebook by Police Chief Gordon Ramsay. Collins, while appreciative of officer Joe DeJesus’s efforts, feels the released video may be doing further damage to the vulnerable young man in the recording.
For sure, it’s a great tribute to a cop’s work and it probably perfectly highlights a typical day in the Duluth police department. Whatever good comments were posted to the video, which has gone viral, are certainly deserved.
But what about the kid who wanted to kill himself? How does he feel about having the most private moment in his life broadcast to the world?
The department clearly took pains to hide his face. But his voice and his clothes might make it possible to ID him. Even if it’s not, what is the impact of distributing the video on a young man’s psyche who is already on the edge?
While the concerns about the impact on the young man may be valid, care was taken to protect his identity. In addition, the suicide attempt took place at a public parking garage, where any number of people might have ID’ed the young man. Even if rules were put in place to protect citizens from invasions of privacy, a suicide attempt from the top of a public structure likely wouldn’t fall under those rules. The police chief did not release the man’s name or reveal his face. That’s about all that can reasonably be expected under these circumstances.
In addition, this sort of proactive release is what’s expected from law enforcement agencies. It shows an officer doing his job well and saving a life in the process. The introduction of further limitations under the guise of privacy protections will be used to redact or withhold footage that isn’t nearly as flattering. You can legislate an inch, but agencies will stretch it a mile… or at least to the point of an FOIA lawsuit.
Victims of police misconduct aren’t as likely to be as concerned about privacy violations as those committing the wrongdoing. The privacy concerns self-servingly raised by law enforcement agencies have come at a faster pace than those raised by privacy activists.
Collins himself spins the narrative on Minnesota law enforcement’s attempts to keep body cam footage out of the public’s hands by presenting it as something the public spearheaded.
These are the issues that were behind the effort to put limits on what police can do with body-cam video in Minnesota.
Last month, 16 Minnesota cities petitioned a state agency to declare that body-camera data be presumed private in most instances, the Associated Press reported.
But it wasn’t 16 “cities.” It was 16 law enforcement agencies. There was no “public interest” being advocated for. The only issue at stake was how much agencies could withhold, and they were aiming for 100% until told otherwise by new legislation. That effort failed and recordings are considered to be public records until further notice.
Collins agrees with Maplewood’s (MN) police chief that recordings — or access to them — should be limited when responding to medical or mental health emergencies. Collins feels suicide attempts — like the one posted by the Duluth police department — should also fall under this proposed exclusion. His concern for the privacy of at-risk citizens is understandable, but a blanket exemption for these areas is a terrible idea.
Law enforcement doesn’t have the greatest track record when its comes to dealing with suicide attempts or mental health issues. At the very least, recorded footage would prove useful in training officers to better handle these interactions. Rules forbidding recordings (or their release) of these interactions would eliminate the sort of footage no law enforcement agency wants to release: like every time officers respond to medical emergencies with shows of force or “assist” in suicide prevention by turning it into a homicide.
Agencies should do everything they can to protect the identities of citizens who aren’t charged with crimes and treat the footage of the interior of people’s homes with as much care as possible. Beyond that, almost everything else about the job takes place in public and should be accessible by the public. Adding exceptions for privacy (in areas where privacy expectations are minimal-to-nonexistent) just gives agencies more ways to bury footage that shows officers behaving badly.