The DOJ Will Finally Allow Local Cops To Wear Body Cameras When Working With Federal Agencies
from the years-after-the-tech-has-become-ubiquitous dept
The federal government is finally coming around to body cameras. While law enforcement agencies around the nation continue to buy body cameras for their officers, federal agencies have been less receptive to these tools of incremental accountability and transparency.
First, let’s address body cameras. They’re not a panacea. They don’t turn bad cops into good cops. They’re far more useful to prosecutors then they are to criminal defendants or plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits. They tend to “malfunction” with alarming regularity during confrontations with members of the public. And they can be manipulated to act as corroboration for falsified police reports.
That being said, they do offer one thing we haven’t seen since the advent of dashcams: another version of events normally only memorialized by exonerative statements and questionable report narratives.
Five years ago, the DOJ was throwing federal money at body camera programs. But only for local law enforcement agencies. The feds wanted none of it. A mandate issued by the DOJ said its agencies wouldn’t partner with cop shops using the tech, even if the cameras were purchased with federal money. According to the DOJ, it was “looking into the issue,” but strongly felt the presence of body cameras would “expose police methods.” It said this with a straight face despite “police methods” remaining largely unchanged since the invention of the door ram.
Five years later — and while under the now-temporary thumb of cop cheerleader Bill Barr — the DOJ has finally decided to join the present (already in progress).
Today, the Justice Department announced that it will permit state, local, territorial, and tribal task force officers to use body-worn cameras on federal task forces around the nation. The department’s policy will permit federally deputized officers to activate a body-worn camera while serving arrest warrants, or during other planned arrest operations, and during the execution of search warrants.
This doesn’t mean federal officers and agents will be wearing body cameras. Oh my no. That accountability bridge will presumably be crossed sometime in the next decade. But it will no longer require local officers to leave their cameras at the station before assisting in warrant service. According to the DOJ’s official guidance [PDF], this will finally allow the local boys to stop violating their own policies when performing arrests or searches.
To the extent state and local law enforcement agencies mandate BWCs [body-worn cameras] for TFOs [task force officers] while engaged in federal task force operations, the Department will permit federally deputized TFOs from those agencies to use their BWCs under the following circumstances.
How gracious of the federal government to allow local agencies to follow their own policies. But there are some catches. And one of those catches will allow officers to engage in searches without providing unbiased documentation of the search.
TFOs are authorized to activate their BWCs upon approaching a subject or premises, and must deactivate their BWCs when the scene is secured as determined by the federal supervisor on the scene as designated by the sponsoring federal agency.
More DOJ caveats await, ensuring even fewer recordings will occur.
TFOs are prohibited from recording: (1) undercover personnel; (2) confidential informants or confidential sources; (3) on-scene witness interviews prior to or after the operation; (4) personnel using specialized or sensitive investigative techniques or equipment; or (5) onscene actions by any non-law enforcement persons who are assisting law enforcement personnel prior to or after the operation.
So, the FBI will continue to conduct “interviews” without unbiased documentation and nearly anything involved with a task force operation will go unrecorded because pretty much everything other than breaching an entrance or placing someone in cuffs will fall into these expansive, malleable exceptions.
And if the public wants access to this footage, good luck with that. Whatever local policies and laws that normally govern public access to recordings are null and void. According to the DOJ, it retains control of recordings and will preemptively declare all recordings exempt from public records requests.
In all circumstances, TFO BWC recordings shall be treated as law enforcement sensitive information, the premature disclosure of which could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings, and as potential evidence in a federal investigation subject to applicable federal laws, rules, and policy concerning any disclosure or dissemination; and therefore deemed privileged absent appropriate redaction prior to disclosure or dissemination. Nothing in this policy shall be deemed to provide a right of public access to TFO BWC recordings.
The good news is there is one exception: if anyone on the task force — federal or otherwise — kills or seriously injures someone, the recordings will be “expeditiously reviewed” and approved for public release as soon as is “practical.” Granted, the dictionary definition of “expeditious” and “practical” will differ greatly from the DOJ’s definition of those terms. But it’s something. And it’s something that fills a void the DOJ proactively chose to leave unfilled for years.