ACLU: New state law needed for police body-worn cams

policecar3New state law is needed to address an alarming lack of depth and uniformity among policies guiding local police use of body-worn cameras in Virginia, an ACLU of Virginia report has concluded.

The ACLU’s position is based on results of a recent study it conducted that found wide discrepancies in policies among 59 law enforcement agencies using BWCs in Virginia. None of the policies fully address BWC usage, privacy concerns, officer accountability or how long videos should be kept, the study said.

“Use of body-worn cameras by police can be good for law enforcement and the public if they are properly deployed,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “Nonetheless, the lack of thorough, consistent protocols to assure citizens of the Commonwealth that their rights are being protected no matter where they live or when they cross jurisdictional boundaries threatens, rather than protects, the public interest.”

The ACLU is offering a model policy to help local police departments that have or are considering using body cams make sure their use improves accountability while protecting the public’s right to privacy. Implementation of some aspects of this model policy may require amendments to state law governing public access to information and the privacy of data subjects.

Among the ACLU study’s findings regarding current local policies:

  • Only three percent of local BWC policies require officers to inform members of the public when they are being recorded.
  • Five percent address use of BWCs on school grounds.
  • Three percent prohibit police from recording constitutionally protected expression such as peaceful protests.
  • Just 12 percent prohibit use of BWCs in a private home if a resident objects.

Most policies give officers too much discretion regarding when BWCs must be turned on and off. More than one in four don’t include enforcement provisions to punish officers who don’t follow the rules.

Regarding retention of and access to data, policies should follow a uniform state-mandated policy that sets clear guidelines for access to videos and length of retention. A recent advisory opinion from the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council concludes that the Freedom of Information Act currently treats local police agencies and Sheriff’s departments differently from other law enforcement agencies with respect to data practices further complicating the ability of Virginians to understand their rights and deterring adoption of uniform policies statewide.

“These are serious issues not just for the police but for every citizen of the Commonwealth whose actions could be recorded by a police officer at almost any time,” Gastañaga said.

The ACLU of Virginia obtained the local policies for its study through a Freedom of Information Act request sent to 368 law enforcement agencies in Virginia. The study also included a review of the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ recently drafted Model Policy on Body-Worn Cameras, which was found to be similarly flawed.

The ACLU of Virginia’s full report, as well as the 59 local policies, are available at http://www.acluva.org/bodycams.

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