DHS, ICE Begin Body Camera Pilot Program With Surprisingly Good Policies In Place

from the exceeding-admittedly-low-expectations dept

Following protests over killings by law enforcement officers, the Department of Justice decided it might be a good idea to equip more police officers with body cameras. In May 2015, it announced the federal government would be spending $75 million over the next three years to purchase body cameras for local law enforcement agencies.

The DOJ saw the potential for body cameras to produce more accountability, lower the chances of deadly interactions, and rebuild some trust with the communities officers served. That’s presumably why it opted out of this push for body camera adoption. Five months after it announced the body cam grant program, DOJ reps told local law enforcement that use of body cameras wasn’t allowed when partnering with federal law enforcement. Either the cameras stayed home or the local cops did. No exceptions.

It wasn’t until five years later that the DOJ finally decided it was ok for federal agents to work with local law enforcement officers sporting body cameras, perhaps realizing the cameras simply weren’t going to go away. After all, it had encouraged adoption of the tech with three years of federal funding. But this still meant federal officers were going about their work unobserved, which still seemed problematic given all the advantages the DOJ said these cameras created when it started handing out federal cash in 2015.

It took another year before the DOJ finally decided federal officers should get with the body camera program. Six years after it invested in nationwide distribution of body cameras, federal officers are finally going to start wearing them. The ATF was the first to perform a test run of the cameras. Now, the DHS is following suit.

Agents with an investigative unit of the Department of Homeland Security will wear body cameras for the first time as part of a six-month pilot program that will focus on the costs and benefits of using the technology in federal law enforcement, officials said Tuesday.

The cameras will be used during the test by 55 members of the SWAT-like special response teams at Homeland Security Investigations in Houston, Newark, New Jersey, and New York, an official told reporters.

That’s the first wave of adoption for the DHS, albeit not one that guarantees permanent adoption. The second wave will rope in one of the federal government’s most controversial agencies.

The senior ICE official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to provide details on the program before the announcement, said the agency expects later to expand the pilot to include officers who conduct immigration enforcement arrests.

Fortunately, this rollout is accompanied by something that often goes missing when the federal government deploys new tech: privacy impact assessments and written policies. In this case, there’s both. The DHS has issued a Privacy Impact Assessment [PDF] that contains the guidelines for camera use by officers. This one directly addresses the ICE pilot program.

The rules laid down are actually pretty solid, which is somewhat surprising given the federal government’s reluctance to adopt the tech and ICE’s roguelike reputation.

ICE personnel must record Pilot enforcement activities at the start of the activity, or, if not practicable, as soon as safely possible thereafter. Once a Body Worn Camera is activated, ICE personnel should only deactivate the Body Worn Camera when their participation or involvement in the enforcement activity has concluded. If ICE personnel fail to activate their Body Worn Camera, or if the recording is interrupted, they must provide a statement detailing the reason why they failed to activate the Body Worn Camera or why the recording was interrupted.

ICE personnel will verbally notify (i.e., provide notice to) individuals that they are being recorded if (or as soon as) it is operationally feasible. This notice should not be construed as a requirement for ICE to obtain consent from the subjects being recorded. The Body Worn Camera will be placed on a visible location on ICE personnel’s outerwear (e.g., on vest or helmet) so that individuals can see the Body Worn Camera.

ICE personnel are prohibited from intentionally making Body Worn Camera recordings in places or areas where cameras generally are not allowed or permissible (e.g., locker rooms, dressing rooms, medical facilities, restrooms, in facilities where recording is prohibited) unless related to an enforcement activity.

ICE personnel should not record encounters with undercover officers, confidential informants, and cooperating defendants.

ICE personnel should not record in a manner that would infringe on activity protected by the First Amendment (e.g., lawful protests).

Body Worn Cameras will not be used during undercover operations or in situations in which it would pose a risk to officer or public safety.

Body Worn Camera recordings will not be used for any facial recognition activities.

All recordings collected during this pilot period will be saved. Anything of evidentiary value will be sorted out. Recordings can (at least theoretically) be obtained with FOIA requests.

Of some concern is the directive forbidding the recording of First Amendment activities. On one hand, you don’t want federal agents to engage in surveillance of protected activities. On the other hand, you don’t want any interactions between federal officers and protesters to go unrecorded. So, this will have to be refined. It would seem that the rule ordering the recording of all “enforcement activities” would supersede the rule forbidding the recording of First Amendment activities when officers interact with protesters. But it will probably be months or years before the public knows how ICE officers have chosen to interpret these rules.

Still, it’s a good set of ground rules. And it gets a little better. ICE officers are expected to record any questioning of individuals (whether in custody or not), as well as any brief detentions or frisks of individuals they encounter. It’s also mandatory for all warrant service and searches incident to an arrest.

Better late than never. And a far better set of rules than was expected, given both the federal government’s resistance to early adoption and ICE’s general unwillingness to welcome examination of its enforcement efforts. Hopefully, the rollout will continue with similar rules in place for other federal agencies. While body cameras aren’t a panacea for law enforcement misconduct, they’re far better than having nothing but an officer’s word for what went down.

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Comments on “DHS, ICE Begin Body Camera Pilot Program With Surprisingly Good Policies In Place”

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7 Comments
TKnarr (profile) says:

I don’t know, I think I’d like a "refinement" of the rules to clearly state that yes, all enforcement activities must be recorded, no exceptions, and no, no recording of protected First Amendment activity may take place, no exceptions, and that any officer who notes that this would mean no enforcement activity involving protected First Amendment activity is permitted is entirely correct in that conclusion and all officers should act accordingly or face disciplinary action for violating one or both of those rules in addition to any civil rights charges that may be filed against them.

migi says:

Re: Re:

The way I read the rule "ICE personnel should not record in a manner that would infringe on activity protected by the First Amendment (e.g., lawful protests)" is that recording should not be used as some sort of threat.

Given that almost everything people say is protected by the 1st amendment I think a strong prohibition on recording it would be dumb and counterproductive.

Upstream (profile) says:

Better than nothing, but not by much.

There are too many "should" statements for my taste. There is also a complete, and completely expected, absence of specified penalties for those who violate the rules. Being required to provide an after-the-fact "statement" does not count.

Rules are meaningless without penalties for violating the rules, and without effective enforcement. Unless and until we see violators of the rules hit with meaningful sanctions, it is all just PR fluff.

So while Tim Cushing’s sub-headline is on target, as usual, I would preface it with the word "barely."

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