Out of Focus


      Police body cameras are producing key evidence in trials involving police shootings.Earlier this month, video was key in the trial of a Cincinnati police officer who shot a motorist at a traffic stop.That ended in a jury deadlock.

      Full Measure Correspondent Joce Sterman found as other cities rush to equip police with cameras, one issue has gone out of focus: the privacy of crime victims.

      The release of body camera footage in the recent shooting of an African-American man in Charlotte, North Carolina highlights the difficult balance between transparency and accountability with this policing tool. But in the heated debate about the cameras being used in departments of across the country, some believe one issue has gone out of focus: the privacy of crime victims.

      The issue can be highlighted through a recent example in Florida. An officer wearing a body camera responded to a domestic shooting and pulled an injured mother from the scene. The officer then stepped even closer to coax the victim’s young children from the scene.

      To many, what the officer did appeared heroic. His department agreed and made it public, posting the video on YouTube. But victims’ advocates believe the posting was a privacy violation of the highest order.

      “It’s horribly violating for that woman“ said Jennifer Storm, a victims’ advocate who has helped to shape policy at the state and federal level and currently serves as Commonwealth Victim Advocate in Pennsylvania, a position appointed by the Governor.

      The video of this incident was shared and has now been viewed millions of times. But the department involved did not ask the family involved for consent. Advocates like Storm say that’s points to a classic example of a forgotten issue in the great body camera debate.

      “A body camera is going to get every single thing the officer sees,” Storm explained. ”It’s like reality TV and not in a good way. It’s bad reality TV, incredibly traumatizing for these families and survivors.”

      What the lens of a body cam captures can be a complex issue of privacy. Privacy is often a casualty in the larger concern over transparency. In cases of murder, sexual assault and domestic violence, pictures can bring the accountability that many demand. But there’s a price.

      “All of a sudden your loved one’s death becomes a hashtag. And it becomes seen by millions of people and forwarded and retweeted and Facebooked,” Storm said.

      That’s what happened in a Pennsylvania case where video of a deadly encounter between a police officer and a suspect went viral after the officer involved was cleared of homicide charges. The man’s last moments, now online, haunt his family.

      Storm and advocates argue it’s not just an issue of whether body cams should be recording. They point to larger questions including how and why that video eventually becomes public. The issue is a tricky one, even for privacy advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union.

      Jay Stanley wrote the ACLU’s first policy paper on body cameras. And tweaked the policy once use of these cameras became more widespread. He said, “The real challenge is balancing how to get the advantages of these cameras without turning it into a privacy meltdown.”

      The ACLU has a split take on body cams. While the organization takes a ‘dim view’ of surveillance cameras, it does support police cameras as a check against the abuse of power. So if there’s a question of abuse, the ACLU supports releasing the tape, even against the wishes of a victim or their family. That’s a position the organization took in arguments over the release of footage in New Hampshire involving a man who charged police and was shot and killed.

      “When those two values come into direct conflict, you have to make very tough calls,” Stanley said, “We think in those situations, the default should be that they should be made public because of the overwhelming public interest in doing that oversight and it can’t be vetoed by the family or the victims themselves.”

      The debate is complicated by the fact that police are the ones who usually have veto power. A Study on body camera use funded by the Department of Justice found something stunning. Many departments don’t have specific written policies for how body cameras should be use and when video should be released.

      Lindsay Miller Goodison was among those who conducted that study for PERF, the Police Executive Research Forum. She said, “It was very concerning, because obviously we want agencies to have good strong policies in place.”

      The PERF study offered strong recommendations about informing victims they are being recorded, getting consent and crafting firm policies for when it’s appropriate to make footage public.

      “When you're dealing with crime victims and crime witnesses, you’re dealing with people who are in very vulnerable situations and those agencies need to think about how they’re going to handle those types of situations at the outset,” Miller Goodison said.

      But even big agencies can be behind the curve. The NYPD says it is still drafting its formal body camera policy. At the moment, there is no federal standard to base it on. Some in law enforcement, including Jonathan Thompson, Executive Director of the National Sheriffs Association, say they don’t want a universal standard.

      “Every agency is different. Every community is different,” Thompson said.

      Thompson and others believe each jurisdiction and each agency needs the freedom to map out their own policies with input from their own communities. He suggests concerns over victims’ rights are not forgotten by law enforcement, just carefully balanced.

      “That’s been a very big debate internal to the discussion. Who wins? Is it the victim or is it law enforcement or is it transparency? I think there is no real correct answer,” Thompson said.

      But without clear answers or standards for the use of police body cameras, advocates warn a dangerous dilemma remains for victims of crime.

      “They shouldn’t have to think if I call 911 is it going to be filmed and am I going to end up on the internet? Public safety should never come with those kinds of questions or consequences. Ever.”

      Much of the debate over creating a policy on the release of body cam videos hinges on state laws.

      At this time, 17 states have at least one law specific to the release of body camera video.

      17 more have attempted to pass legislation but failed, and 16 haven't yet tried.

      We blurred some of the faces in that report and much of the debate over the release of body camera videos hinges on state laws. Right now, 17 states have at least one law *specific* to the release of video. 17 more have attempted to pass legislation but failed, and 16 haven't yet tried.