One of the main perceived societal benefits of broad BWC deployment is deterring and documenting police misconduct, including racially motivated violence and excessive use of force. Contrarily, a key benefit to police use of BWCs is providing documentation to rebut false allegations of such violence or excessive force and to corroborate evidence of crimes being committed.
If officers can turn recordings on and off, the accuracy and thoroughness of such recordings will be called into question, including allegations, whether well-founded or not, that officers stopped recordings deliberately to cover up misconduct.
Also, anything short of constant recording will lead to excessive litigation, uncertainty, and mistrust, negating much of the value of having BWCs in the first place.
Innovating to a Middle Ground
Although we are not engineers, we believe there may be a relatively simple technological innovation that could mitigate many of the risks raised above: BWCs could be set to record, at a minimum, video for the length of a police officer’s shift, each equipped with a control switch. This switch would allow police officers to electronically tag the recording when the officer reasonably believes a law-enforcement-relevant event is about to occur, as well as when an incident concludes.
Many, if not most, of these events likely will be preceded by a radio call, a police observation, or some other triggering event, at which point an officer could touch the BWC control to tag the video. As a result, in the future, such portions of the recorded data could be located relatively easily for analysis, longer storage (than irrelevant law-enforcement recordings), and retrieval.
Of course, law-enforcement officers will not be 100 percent accurate in their tagging: Some events expected to be law-enforcement relevant will turn out not to be and vice versa. Nonetheless, such a system should substantially reduce allegations of, and litigation over, selective recording by police to cover up misconduct because there would be full recordings of each police officer’s shift to resolve evidentiary disputes.
Except where related in time to a disputed incident, portions of video without such tags could be saved for relatively shorter periods of time since they will be more likely to contain embarrassing invasions of privacy or sensitive personal information without legal significance.
With such innovative technology, police could similarly toggle on and off audio recordings from BWCs, perhaps with policy requirements for gaining consent prior to activating the audio-recording capabilities. Such a process also could enable supervisors to review, assess, and modify officer training over time based on the accuracy and effects of tagging decisions made by individual officers.
Whether or not such technology is created and deployed, law-enforcement officials and policymakers must rapidly agree on “best practices” for: the storage and security of BWC data; access to, analysis of, and retention and destruction of data; analytics of the video and related metadata; issues of secondary use of BWC data (e.g., in criminal prosecutions unrelated to the incident for which a recording was initially made or civil lawsuits); and for how BWC-generated data should be handled under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), sunshine law requests, and records laws in the various states.
We will discuss these important issues, as well as vendor requirements and limitations for cloud storage providers, in our next article.
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