ACLU calls for statewide body cam policy; law enforcement skeptical

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Flickr/Ryan Johnson

An officer using a body camera

At least 48 local law enforcement agencies around the state are using body cameras, but the state lacks written policies on how they should be regulated, according to a report the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi released this week.

Out of the 146 total law enforcement agencies that the ACLU surveyed, at least 48 have used body cameras, but ten of those do not have any written guideline for acquiring evidence with the equipment. The ten agencies include the Attala, Hinds, Lowndes, Monroe, Perry and Wayne County sheriffs’ departments as well as the Carthage, Fulton, New Albany and Ripley police departments.

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“We see that as problematic because if the departments have the cameras but have not taken the time to put in place the policy on how the cameras are utilized, then law enforcement officers are left to their own discretion in how they proceed,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, the executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi.

“The problems that are lifted up with that are the lack of uniform guidelines that lead to privacy violations, questions regarding how the community accesses the film, and whether or not the government is using the body cameras as continued proliferation of government surveillance.”

The policies should establish rules for how officers may use the cameras, as well as when they can and cannot use them, such as when a citizen has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as in a private residence or restroom.

The ACLU report released Monday, however, says that the 65 departments with policies (some have guidelines but have not deployed cameras yet) in Mississippi “fall short of basic privacy safeguards and bare-minimum accountability provisions” in several areas; for instance, none of the guidelines say (although some encourage) that officers notify individuals that they are being recorded.

Biloxi Police Department Chief John Miller said the report disregarded several factors of operating the cameras from an officer’s perspective.

BodyWorn by Utility

An example of an in-uniform body camera that some Mississippi police agencies use.

“I have not seen the issues [the ACLU] is talking about,” said Miller, who is also President of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police. “Their policy is well-written. But it doesn’t really cover the needs of law enforcement and the retention of evidence. I understand some of what the ACLU wants to do, but I don’t think they’re going about it the right way, I really don’t.”

Miller mentioned, for instance, that Mississippi is a one party consent state, and that, by law, the other party does not need to be notified while being recorded.

A 2016 report from Pew Charitable Trusts found that only 21 states have laws regarding public access of body-camera data. Since then, Michigan, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Arkansas have joined that list, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Mississippi has no such law, although as of April 2015 the Mississippi Department of Archives and History’s public-records retention schedule includes in-car and body worn cameras.

Among the 65 law enforcement agencies with written policies, the ACLU found different rules for different jurisdictions, which, the report argues, shows the need for statewide uniformity.

“As a result of the vast disparities from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, Mississippians now face a bewildering array of policies governing the use of [body-worn cameras], and the privacy concerns that accompany the retention and disclosure of personally identifiable data acquired through their use,” the report states. “It is reckless to have varying policies from community to community. Too much is at stake. There are grave implications for constitutionally protected rights.”

Miller, whose department first deployed body cameras about five years ago, said he wasn’t opposed to a statewide policy, but that he doubts a single set of standards could fit every department’s needs.

“You have some really large agencies in Mississippi and you have some really small agencies, and I don’t think one policy would fit all,” he said. ” Different agencies have different needs. Some of them won’t have great quality cameras because they can’t afford them.”

Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson, whose department also uses body cameras, agreed.

“Even though [Harrison] is one of the biggest counties in the state, people in Hinds County may not agree with our policy and we may not agree with their policy,” Peterson said. “It’d be a good thing [to have statewide rules] but getting everyone to agree would be a mountain to climb.”

Another flaw according to the ACLU of Mississippi is that less than 20 percent of guidelines require officers to deactivate the cameras in a home if the resident requests so.

Both Peterson and Miller said deactivating a camera should depend on the situation.

“If you have a resident who says that you can’t come in with camera and an altercation takes place then [you can’t stop recording],” Peterson said.

“The whole purpose of body cameras is to catch the whole event,” Miller said. “If you decided that you’re going to turn off the camera in the middle of the event for whatever reason, then you’ve kind of defeated the whole purpose.”

ACLU of Mississippi

A graphic from the ACLU’s report.

There is also the matter of whether citizens should have access to the footage as public records; while many of the policies allow officers to review the footage before submitting evidence, few allow any access of the footage to the civilians in the videos.

Miller argued that the retention of evidence has to be evaluated on a case by case basis.

“A lot of the time a trial or appearing before a jury may take years,” he said. “You can’t have decided what you’re going to do with evidence ahead of time in a case until the case is over. I wouldn’t be opposed to [releasing footage to victims], but if it’s a case you’re going to trial with you can’t taint the case by showing evidence beforehand. Until the case is resolved, you don’t know what’s going to be of value.”

The ACLU is hopeful that, with a consistent statewide policy, body-worn cameras will be used to improve trust between police departments and communities, among other benefits.

“We believe that body cameras have the opportunity to present a win-win for both the police department and the community they serve,” Riley-Collins said. “With good policies in place, recording encounters between the police and civilians will promote police accountability, deter misconduct both on behalf of the officer as well as the civilian, and will provide objective evidence, which would help resolve any civilian complaints against use of force.”