The balances struck in early departmental police-worn body camera policies

To understand the balances being struck between transparency and privacy, it also is important to look beyond the formal laws on the books. Police departments are not democratically elected like state legislators. However, police departments are accountable to elected city and town leaders. Moreover, because municipal police departments represent smaller jurisdictional units, they are able to get closer direct feedback through community meetings, town halls, and online surveys. This section presents findings regarding how a sample of early police-worn body camera policies address the conflict.

Collection and coding methods

This study of body camera policies collected and coded as of December 2015 focuses on the municipal police departments that are the primary law enforcement providers for the 100 largest cities in the United States. A metropolitan area may be served by different kinds of law enforcement agencies, such as county sheriff’s departments for certain regions, and by specialized agencies, such as the state highway patrol. The data collection focused on the primary police department serving each city because the portfolio of law enforcement activities by the municipal police department is broader than specialized agencies. Moreover, the primary municipal police agency typically serves the greater portion of the city area and more people.

Focusing on the 100 largest cities yielded diversity in terms of region of the United States and size of the city, while still maintaining focus on policies that will affect the largest number of people. The sizes of the cities ranged from more than 8.4 million people in New York City to fewer than 250,000 people in cities such as Fremont, California; Scottsdale, Arizona; Chesapeake, Virginia; and Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to containing more affected people, prominent cities help set the standards for others to emulate. Large cities also have a greater market power to influence the technology surrounding body cameras, including redaction software.

For the 100 largest cities, a team of eight obtained information on:

  • 1 whether the main municipal police department serving that jurisdiction is considering adopting, has plans to adopt, or has already deployed body cameras;
  • 2 the rationale(s) for the plans to adopt or adoption of body cameras; and
  • 3 whether the municipal police department has a publicly available body camera policy governing the use of body cameras.

The answers to each of the above questions were coded. Body camera policies were also collected for further coding. Where policies were not readily available through searches of online materials, team members called the department directly to obtain a copy of the policy or ascertain if one existed.

A policy codebook was generated through an iterative process based on an examination of the main recurring provisions and approaches taken in the body camera policies. The codebook contained 51 variable categories. Thirteen of the variables concerned the policy position on officer discretion regarding recording and mandates on what types of law enforcement encounters to record. Twelve of the variables concerned contexts where at least some body camera policies require that recording cease. Three of the variables concerned public and law enforcement access to recordings. Several other variables captured various other policy aspects such as data storage, redaction and retention provisions, and safeguards to ensure officer compliance.

In our review, we found that 88 out of the 100 major municipal police departments examined have piloted or used body cameras, or have plans to do so. Local controversies involving the police departments spurred at least 16 of the jurisdictions to pilot body cameras. National controversies over use of force, especially the Ferguson protests, figured heavily in the decisions of 24 jurisdictions to adopt body cameras. Another oft-cited reason for adopting body cameras was the general interest in improving accountability, transparency, and trust in the police.

In all, in this first wave of collection, coding and analyses were able to obtain 39 police department policies for coding. In addition, three police departments without publicly available body camera policies were in states with legislation available for coding. For these three departments we coded the state law because it offers the baseline rules for all police departments in the state. Therefore, we coded policies governing the deployment of police-worn body cameras by the municipal police departments serving 42 jurisdictions in the results reported here. The findings and analyses of a second wave of collection, coding, and analyses of a much larger dataset of 213 policies are reported elsewhere in the author’s book on recording the police (Fan 2019).

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