Most Everyone Supports Police Body Camera Programs. But Nobody's Sure What They Should Look Like.

The new technology is raising questions about civil rights, privacy and security.

New York Police Department Sergeant Joseph Freer demonstrates how to use and operate a body camera during a media press conference on December 3, 2014. (National Journal)

On April 4, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, South Carolina following a traffic stop. Video camera footage—from both by a bystander's cell phone and the police officer's dashcam—captured the confrontation.

North Charleston is the hometown of South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott. After Walter Scott's death, Walter's mother, Judy Scott, spoke with the senator about how to prevent future deaths.

"I really want to make sure that mothers do not have to bury their sons," she told Sen. Scott, according to his testimony.

Now, the Republican senator is working to promote the idea of local police departments implementing body cameras. It's an idea that has earned support from stakeholders across the spectrum—from law enforcement officials, to prosecutors, to civil rights activists. Yet at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, there were more questions about how to enact a body camera program than answers.

Scott appeared at the hearing as a witness, echoing colleague Rand Paul's testimony a month ago. Scott said in situations such as Walter Scott's death, video evidence is "priceless," and urged the committee to consider body cameras as one piece of the puzzle in rebuilding trust between police and disenfranchised communities.

"If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a video is worth 1,000 pictures in untold lives," Scott told the committee. "I am not proposing that we federalize local policing, or mandate the use of body-worn cameras, but rather that we find the best way possible to make technologies available to local departments looking for ways to keep both their officers and the public they serve safer."

There is a staggering level of public support for police body cameras. A CBS poll conducted in December—before the deaths of Walter Scott and Freddie Gray in Baltimore—found that 91 percent of respondents support on-duty police officers wearing body cameras. One 2014 study found that body camera use led to a 90 percent decline in complaints against police, and a 50 percent decline in use of force.

But despite the broad support that exists for body camera programs in theory, implementing such programs at the local level—and trying to anticipate the consequences of the new technology—is much more difficult.

One concern raised in the hearing is the sheer cost of providing body cameras for police officers in local precincts. Local police departments already are strapped for cash. Each body camera costs roughly $1,000, but the panelists Tuesday said equipment isn't what makes the body camera programs costly; data storage is.

Police departments will need to rely on their own databases to store the camera footage, and that amount of storage can be costly. Aside from the question of data storage, there are security concerns: Do small police departments have the cybersecurity infrastructure to ensure that hackers cannot access and leak sensitive evidence?

Another question centers on disclosure: Should body camera footage be treated as a public medium, or as private evidence? In South Carolina, police department footage is not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, and can only be achieved through the discovery process in court. But at least one municipality—Morristown, New Jersey—will allow video from its police body cameras to be requested for publication.

San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman recently said footage from the city's newly implemented body cameras will never be made public. "We don't release video to the media, period," she told the audience at a national gathering of police chiefs Monday.

There are some states where body cameras are not legally feasible without passing other laws first. Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to pass a workaround to a state wiretapping law to add an exception for body cameras.

All of these conflicting standards in states show just how thorny body camera implementation could be. And since the technology is new to U.S. police departments, it's hard for experts to know what approach will best balance privacy concerns with the need for more transparency. But in light of the resurging debate about brutality, police departments from Morristown, to Elkhart, Indiana, to Las Cruces, New Mexico, to Birmingham, Alabama have implemented body camera programs. Over the next year, national experts should be able to get a better sense of which programs work, and which don't.

There is also the question of when police officers should have their body cameras turned on, and when that could constitute a violation of citizens' privacy. At Tuesday's hearing, Lindsay Miller, a senior research associate at the Police Executive Research Forum, stressed that police officers should not violate the privacy of victims or witnesses by recording their interactions. Instead, she said, officers should ask for consent to record when talking to sensitive subjects.

At the hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley voiced reservations for creating a federal mandate for the cameras or incentivizing their use, and stressed the need to first see how the programs play out at the local level.

"Before we decide what, if any, federal legislative response is appropriate, we should get a good sense of state and local approaches to body cameras," Grassley said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, who presided over the hearing, ended the session with a simple question to the panelists: Do the benefits outweigh the costs of body camera programs? Everyone agreed.

But, as those gathered in the hearing room have witnessed over the past year, political consensus can be a far cry from successful action.