Should Police Have Access to Body Cam Footage After an Incident?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on November 05, 2015 10:59 AM

Police body cams are becoming increasingly popular, with nearly a quarter of the nation's police agencies currently using the small, body-mounted cameras, and 80 percent considering the technology. Civil rights advocates, law enforcement officers, and even the President, view body cams as an important way to document police interactions, deter misconduct, and improve community relations.

But one major controversy remains: should officers have access to body cam footage following an incident?

United on Cams, Divided Over Footage

Just wearing a body cam can have a significant effect on officer behavior. A controlled study published this September found that officers assigned to wear body cameras were less likely to conduct "stop-and-frisk" searches or make arrests.They interacted with the public 13.5 percent more often than non-cammed officers and issued 23.1 percent more citations for ordinance violations.

Results like these, along with pressure from public advocacy groups and $20 million in grants from the Department of Justice, are spurring more and more police departments to adopt body cam programs. But departments are divided over what to do with the footage.

Civil rights advocates say that allowing officers to view footage following an incident creates a double standard when investigating potential police misconduct. They worry that, if police are able to review footage after a shooting or other incident, officers will craft their stories to fit, or explain away, video evidence. In Oakland, for example, when there has been an officer-involved shooting or death in custody, police are only allowed to review body cam footage after they have been interviewed.

Officers Resist Restrictions

Many police associations are extremely opposed to policies that would limit their access to footage. They're worried that the policies are designed to "set them up to be trapped in 'gotcha' statements that don't exactly match what's on the video," according to a report by KQED's Alex Emslie. San Francisco, for example, has been considering a body cam policy similar to Oakland's. In response, the San Francisco Police Officers Association has pledged to end all voluntary cooperation with officer-involved homicide investigations, Emslie reports. Police opposition was also essential to removing similar restrictions from a California-wide body cam measure this May.

Not all police leaders are opposed to restricting officers' access, however. "In terms of an officer's statement, what matters is the officer's perspective at the time of the event" and it is that which an officer will have to testify to, Mark Person told the Police Executive Research Forum last year. A major in the Prince George's County Police Department, outside of Washington, D.C., he believes that allowing officers access to body cam footage "can cause them to second-guess themselves, which makes them less credible."

As the debate continues, we want to know what you think. After an incident, should officers have access to body cam footage?

Should police officers have access to body cam footage?
Always
Never
Only after being interviewed
Poll Maker

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