One of the largest law enforcement departments in the United States wants to give body-worn cameras to all of its officers, but the specter of constant surveillance is raising privacy issues for both police and the suspects caught on video.
Led by newly installed President of the Los Angeles Police Commission Steve Soboroff, the Los Angeles Police Department is ramping up a campaign to raise private funds for the new technology. Soboroff already has secured about $500,000 from Hollywood figures like media executive Casey Wasserman and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, which gets him halfway toward his goal to give cameras to 1,500 LAPD officers, reports the Associated Press. Soboroff hopes to have cameras for all on-shift officers within a year, reports the LA Daily News.
A pilot study conducted on the 66-officer police department in nearby Rialto, Calif., found that complaints against police officers dropped 88 percent and use of force by an officer dropped by almost 60 percent after instituting body-worn cameras, according to The New York Times.
The LAPD, which employs about 10,000 officers, paid out $24,154,957 in settlements related to civil rights violations or traffic accidents in 2011, which means there is a financial incentive -- besides the potential reduction of police brutality or false abuse allegations -- for the cameras to work.
But the effort to reduce abuse could bring up a host of potential privacy violations. Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, points out that the introduction of body-worn cameras needs to come with strong policies that severely restrict access to the footage and protect the privacy of people caught on camera.
"Police officers often interact with people who are in vulnerable states, or not at their best," said Bibring in an interview with The Huffington Post. "The fact that video is being taken for accountability purposes does not mean it should end up on the evening news." As an example, Bibring brought up the dash-cam video taken of movie star Reese Witherspoon's drunken arrest in Atlanta. While it was filmed on the street where Witherspoon had no expectation of privacy, Bibring pointed out that the video was "very embarrassing," and ended up leaking from the police department.
"[These videos] shouldn't be accessible to anyone else in the department," said Bibring. "Not only should they not be shared with the evening news, they shouldn't be emailed around the office."
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union for LAPD officers, emphasized similar concerns about officers' privacy.
"Balancing everyone’s right to privacy with technology that could, in effect, capture every moment of every day, will be our emphasis as we consider and negotiate work rules," said a LAPPL statement released Monday. "Among other issues, recording a very personal moment or a deeply visceral reaction to a violent or tragic crime scene may serve no purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity and embarrass someone."
The LAPPL also emphasized that video or images alone are not "complete investigations," and shouldn't be used to encourage a "gotcha" mentality within the department.
When contacted Wednesday by HuffPost, the LAPD had no comment on the privacy issues related to body cameras.
But some police watchdogs believe that donning the uniform means officers should expect extra public scrutiny at all times. Diop Kamau, the founder of an independent police oversight body called PoliceAbuse.com, was a police officer in Hawthorne, Calif., and has strong opinions about the privacy police officers should expect when they sign up for the job.
"What [police] do in public when they're in their uniform is something that they should be comfortable with letting people view at a later date," said Kamau to HuffPost. "It's about openness and accountability."
Kamau also pointed out that because of the widespread use of smartphones, the public is already routinely surveilling the police, whether or not officers realize it. "I think that if any [department] needed cameras, it's the LAPD," he continued. "I would like to see the entire country move in that direction."
The question of public access to footage obtained by police is a murky one. Michael Donaldson, a partner at Beverly Hills law firm Donaldson & Callif specializing in fair use and privacy issues, said he believes body-camera footage is part of the public domain because it probably can't be copyrighted by a police department and it is a public record created by a public employee.
But whether the public should have access to the footage is a different question entirely, he said, and gets at possibly the most important legal issue surrounding the body-camera footage.
"The privacy issues are paramount," said Donaldson to HuffPost. "For instance, if the cops were to break down your door, you'd have a legitimate expectation of privacy in your home. Therefore, that footage would invade your privacy if it were shown outside of strictly, tightly controlled police usage."
"What's new about the technology?" added Donaldson. "It's a small, hidden camera. The [privacy] law is the same." Still, he conceded that without a video from an officer's lapel camera to examine, the issues were all hypothetical and have yet to be tested in court.
Bibring has been vocal about the specific protections needed if body cameras go mainstream. He recommended that video be uploaded securely and that sharing the footage with other departments or agencies be limited. He also suggested a log-in system for the video database, so that officers would have to identify themselves and outline their reasons for accessing past footage.
Bibring warned against what he called "ubiquitous surveillance" -- like officers scanning videos to note who attended a protest.
"People should be aware that they're being recorded, and there's a question of whether they're properly public records," said Bibring. "They shouldn't be publicized with the identity of the individual, but certainly the person being recorded should have access to it."
The LAPD is still in the process of outfitting patrol cars with dashboard cameras, a reform instituted after the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LA officers. So far, a quarter of the department's 1,200 patrol cars have been equipped, notes the AP.