Since the technology debuted on the national stage last August, one of the most critical questions asked of police departments adopting body cameras has been: Who gets to see?
If a police officer has a hostile encounter with a teenager on the street, but neither of them are badly injured, does the teenager have a right to see video of the incident recorded from the officer’s body camera? If an officer is invited inside the home of a domestic-violence victim, will that victim be able to tell the cop not to record?
And, most importantly, if someone is killed in an altercation with an officer, could that officer watch the video before testifying to a grand jury? Because if so, critics say, that cop would be able to alter his or her account of the event to match what was on video—even if their initial account was wildly different.
Hanging over all these hypotheticals is a question about what body-camera footage is: Is it a public record created by the government and available to the people, or is it personally identifiable information that’s confidential and off-limits? The government, after all, can release town-hall-meeting minutes but not personal tax returns.
These questions—many of which have only received provisional answers—will direct how and whether body cameras actually work as they’re supposed to: as a method of holding officers accountable, not as a method for the government (or members of the public) to surveil other citizens. And one of the places these questions have played out most intriguingly is Washington, D.C.