Sadly, distrust, anger and resentment between police and local communities is at an all-time high, and the recent police shootings of black citizens in Baton Rouge, La., and Falcon Heights, Minn., and the shooting of five police officers by an alleged lone gunman in Dallas, have only served to escalate the tension.
Owing to the value of first-hand and eyewitness accounts of these police interactions, many have called for expanded use of body cameras and dashboard cameras — and with good reason. When used properly, they can bring the transparency the public is demanding to encounters with law enforcement. They can also protect officers by providing critical context leading up to acts of force.
As part of a pilot program, up to 100 Boston Police Department patrol officers are scheduled to begin wearing body cameras this month — a great victory for proponents of the technology. But as valuable as these cameras can be, police departments, including our own here in Boston, need more guidance on how to strategically implement and use them. It’s not as simple as hitting the record button. This is where policy makers need to show leadership and foresightedness, and voters and taxpayers need to understand the implications for mass adoption.
First and foremost, decisions need to be made regarding how much content is recorded and stored, in order to manage both the cost and risk of using these cameras.
When and how much will be recorded, and how long do we keep that data? According to a 2014 analysis by the Police Executive Research Forum, running 900 cameras would cost a municipal government $2 million a year, mainly for storage of the audio and videos.
How many hours per day will each camera record? Will officers be expected to record every citizen interaction? The full duration of arrests? Prisoner transportation? Without guidance, a court may find that an officer should have recorded more of an encounter. Saying “the camera is always on” is unrealistic. Where should the line be drawn? If a meal isn’t recorded, could a plaintiff claim that this was because the officer had a beer (or worse) with lunch?
Who will store the data? If police departments get into the business of storing data, they’re going to need someone who can audit the material to ensure compliance with policies. Without an independent auditing program to identify issues before they become a problem, the community faces a significant erosion of the very trust they had hoped this technology would bring.
How will the privacy of individuals on the recordings be protected? Video could include images of people unrelated to a potential case. How would, or should, such images be de-identified before being released, either under Freedom of Information requests or in litigation (even where not required by law)?
These cameras have the potential to be an invaluable tool to our police departments, our courts, and our communities. But without answers to the above questions, the risks of liability and potential litigation could overwhelm the potential value of this data.
The time for attention and action is now.
Daniel Linskey is a managing director at Kroll, a risk-consulting firm, and former superintendent in chief of the Boston Police Department. Alan Brill is a senior managing director at Kroll.