Police Technology & Transparency

It is no secret technology shapes how law enforcement conducts business and the police are expected to keep up with the changing times. Not only do they need to be equipped with the latest and greatest, but the public wants to see it. The recent pandemonium over body cameras caused departments to rush to comply with government and public demands. Now that many organizations have been using the devices successfully, new issues have manifested for society and the judicial system over transparency and public records.

Arguments regarding body cameras stem from legalities which address organizational transparency, public records, and privacy concerns. Body cameras and privacy issues are on the forefront of the “interwebs” and social discussions. Additionally, departments have to generate precise guidelines and policies for officers. What about evidence containment? Can the body cameras be turned off or must there be a constant feed? Who has access to view and/or release these videos? Is it possible to compare policies for video capture to those for written police reports?

Law enforcement are exposed to human misery, dynamic situations, and very sensitive circumstances. Just what should the police release to the public while keeping privacy intact and at the same time meeting the expectations of transparency? Right now, that is the million dollar question.

Recently, public and officials have begun to push legislative action to draw up some legal standards. Even before we get a national standard, we might see variances across the states. When conflict arises, the matter is taken before the courts. All of these components transform law enforcement policy and procedures.

So how much of your personal life do you want on the nightly news or in perpetuity on the internet? Would you agree if you have police contact that the public should have access to your name and address? Date of birth and social security number? That you forego any rights because you tangled with the law and now you give implied consent to the world for all to see? I know I would want victims to be shielded from public exposure, especially children. We might all agree on that aspect. But what about all the other players? Suspects, police, bystanders?

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Do we have to have waivers from all involved persons? Maybe you do not want to show another citizen across the United States the inside of your home. Perhaps it is not acceptable to you to let the world observe one of your worst moments. Is it still OK if the videos are redacted or faces blocked? These are questions to ponder. The general easy answer to those questions is a blanket “no”. But let’s think about that. What if the video exonerates police, contradicts a story, absolves a suspect of wrongdoing, or confirms a victimization denied in public by a vocal suspect? Does a suspect get the same privacy level we afford a victim? What is fair? What is right? Does the public release violate a person’s rights?

Let’s try to generate some thought on these controversies. Sure, some of those biographical or personal identifiers could be redacted upon public release. This would make a more fair assessment of what can be public and what cannot. Who decides? Who has authority to redact the videos? On what parameters?

What about integrity and evidence custody? Chain of custody for electronic evidence? Storage? Once they are redacted, will there be complaints about transparency and editing? An assumed police cover-up if some video footage is redacted or edited to protect information or a victim?

It makes you reflect about how important laws and policies are regarding public records. The outcries for police transparency seem to be greater than people’s respect for an individual’s privacy at times. This is largely due to the increasing public’s mistrust of the government. And now that body cameras have been implemented, the media sometimes feeds on trying to get the police footage as visual aids to their story. Some form of pubic information is expected.

It’s easy for us to jump on the bandwagon of transparency, but when we put ourselves in the victim or suspect’s shoes, things get a little blurry. Most of us could agree we must always protect the victim, but some waiver on what degree we give privacy concerns to the suspect, police, or bystanders. It is certainly a serious topic for discussion and contemplation. What do you think?