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.


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2015 @ 4:11pm

    The problem is that the wrong people are in charge of deciding what should or shouldn't be released. Bodycams should only be accessible and independent civilian review boards, nobody involved or connected to law enforcement should have access to them and allow them to decide what's done with the bodycam footage.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2015 @ 4:50pm

    The employees of the cities involved should wait until their bosses(taxpayers) make the decisions on policy

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2015 @ 5:02pm

    The unblinking eye

    Record it all and let a judge decide what needs redaction. Otherwise, record and preserve IT ALL.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    btr1701 (profile), 15 Oct 2015 @ 5:40pm

    Privacy

    > 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.

    Baloney. There are plenty of things that occur during a typical officer's shift that either *do* have a reasonable expectation of privacy (the public has no right to footage of a cop relieving herself in the bathroom, or engaged in personal conversations with other officers over lunch, or taking a personal call from her husband or child), or for which public release of the footage would make policing very difficult. For example: confidential informants. Every street cop has a number of snitches, informants, and sources who routinely provide information on criminal activity on their beat, and from which a significant amount of crimes are solved. No informant in his right mind will continue to do that if he knows he's not only being filmed, but that the recordings will be releasable the moment the local gang boss sends someone downtown to submit a FOIA request for them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ardvarkmaster (profile), 15 Oct 2015 @ 6:54pm

      Re: Privacy

      I might have more sympathy for this position if it didn't seem like the majority of LEOs weren't trying to deny the public the ability to record their (the LEO's) activities. The public has the right to record the LEOs conducting traffic stops etc, yet many LEOs try to prevent this. And with the rise of body cams, LEOs, as a group, seem to be trying to prevent ANY access of the footage to the public.

      LEOs want NO impediments to their job that may make it more difficult. And that seems to include ANY public oversight on their conduct.

      Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? As far as LEOs are concerned - no one.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2015 @ 6:01pm

    The privacy of suspects are now something to protect?

    I guess that ends the perp walk practice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      art guerrilla (profile), 15 Oct 2015 @ 7:59pm

      Re: The privacy of suspects are now something to protect?

      *ouch*
      um, pretty sure these 'rules', etc don't work both ways, they never do, do they ? ? ?

      besides, there are couple of inconsistencies in this op/edicle:

      "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."

      um, nope, not letting this pass: you are using the specious 'reasoning' Empire woudl use in justifying such re-broadcasting of a person's MOST traumatic, horrific, moment(s) of their lives; that is, that since it is 'public', it ain't private...
      BUT, you/we/others have argued it is NOT that it is public, but that it is collected, stored, collated, associated, coordinated, and culminates in police-state surveillance, per-i-od... that is NOT the same as a handful of other citizens perhaps ID'ing the kid, and telling their neighbors ...
      nope, having a video made of your suicide attempt, having a video made of your suicide attempt vaingloriously RE-BROADCAST by the kops (while spraining an arm clapping themselves on the back), seems kind of slimy to me...

      setting aside your contentious premise that *of course* we want to see 'good' police work video; um, not really, i don't want to see *ANY* police videos; just like i'm not really interested in cat videos, or any of a million other 'genres' i don't care about (excepting the few i do)...

      but i -unfortunately- see too many 'bad' police videos, because THERE ARE SO MANY 'bad' police videos...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 15 Oct 2015 @ 6:02pm

    There's a very simple solution for this. Any member of the public can order the release of any footage involving them. Case closed.

    Now, there will still be some issues related to multiple people being in view of the recording at once. But in general, if there was actually a privacy interest in the footage it's very probable you know the other people shown and can get their permission to release it. If you want general footage unrelated to you, then FOIA it. Sure, that probably won't work, but there's no reason to make a new system that we all know will be just as bad as the original one.

    Either way, the opinion of the police department is completely irrelevant because, well, they're the fucking police department and they can go find another fucking job if they don't like it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Oct 2015 @ 1:31am

    Next years crime report

    "We're seing an increase in assaults in the privies"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Oct 2015 @ 1:35am

    so, they DO understand what privacy is, they just like to say dumb shit like "if you have nothing to hide"

    Well, which is it, you hidding, or you give a fuck

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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