This is the third in a series of short articles presenting comments and counterpoints to an article in the New York Times Magazine on December 13, 2023, titled “The Failed Promise of Police Body Cameras” by Eric Umansky. You can read Part 1 here and follow the links in each article to the subsequent articles.
Early in the article, Mr. Umansky states, “And so as policymakers rushed to equip the police with cameras, they often failed to grapple with a fundamental question: Who would control the footage? Instead, they defaulted to leaving police departments, including New York’s, with the power to decide what is recorded, who can see it and when”. These two sentences require some clarification on his part. What does he mean by “control” and “footage”. In the article it’s implied that “control” should be by a department’s oversight body or, for agencies without one, I am guessing some other external non-law enforcement entity. Does “footage” mean every video recorded by a police agency? In case of NYPD, LAPD, and almost all other large agencies, this could be tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of files depending on state or internal mandated record retention schedules. This concept of an external entity “controlling” or having unrestricted access to “footage” is fraught with problems greater than the perceived problem he proclaims currently exists. There are really only three ways to accomplish Mr. Umansky’s concept of “control”.
You could allow the oversight body unlimited access to the department’s storage and let them look at whatever they wanted. A substantial quantity of video recorded is evidentiary in nature and contains privacy concerning content. You would be giving non-law enforcement personnel access to evidence and privacy content without safeguards. This would be akin to giving them the keys to a department’s physical evidence room and allowing them unfettered access to rummage around and take what they thought they needed.
You could have the oversight body control the storage and access by the department to that storage. I guess this process would have an officer upload his or her camera, with each video properly labeled and categorized, at the end of shift to the external entity’s storage system. Then the department would have to request access to the storage to retrieve video to be used for law enforcement purposes. So, who is going to fund the oversight body’s storage system and the people required to run it? I could go on at length about the problems with this method, but I trust you get the point.
You could give the oversight body restricted access only to the video files they request to access or video that meet external access requirements. Of course, this would simply replicate the system and problem that Mr. Umansky claims already exists. It would be dependent on the police to move video to allow for access. The same keystrokes could be used to electronically transfer video to the oversight body or send video to a restricted location on the server that could be accessed by an oversight body.
Mr. Umansky infers that the police can’t be trusted to “control” the video but doesn’t provide any effective, efficient or reasonable alternative process. The example of the frustration expressed by a member of the NYPD Civilian Complaint Review Board may be warranted but the idea that “The review board should be able to directly log in to the department’s system where footage is stored”, because that’s how it works in Chicago (and other cities), is incorrect, simplistic, and problematic for all the reasons I’ve stated. I seriously doubt that the oversight board in Chicago has unrestricted access to all video. More likely, they have access to a special section of CPD’s digital evidence management system where all video related to a complaint or incident is deposited and stored.
All this being said, I do believe that police departments should develop processes that strive to release body-camera video from critical or controversial instances within a very timely manner. Failure to do so does very little to deter the perception of lack of accountability that sustains viewpoints like Mr. Umansky’s or of citizens highlighted in the article. These processes must be developed and agreed upon in cooperation with internal or external investigatory entities, prosecutors, oversight boards and, if applicable, community groups. The final product must be made public and promoted with the media. Finally, it must be adhered to unless there are very extenuating circumstances.
The goal of accountability and transparency can be accomplished if both police departments and oversight boards work together in a cooperative manner. An adversarial approach only leads to calls for processes that can be politically motivated, one-sided, and not in the best interests of the police departments and the communities they serve.