It’s in everyone’s newsfeeds and on all the news, and it’s not called corona. The demonstrations in the USA, that have spread worldwide, have seen police forces resort to brutal measures in attempts to control crowds. It’s pushed legislators to call for urgent reforms including mandatory use of body cameras when working at protests. Lots of the videos and eye-witness accounts don’t match with the official version of events from police, making people think it’s time for more transparent and accountable policing tactics.

As Alfred Ng notes for cnet, there are still skeptics about body cameras. Concerns range from the fact that cameras might not change the behavior of police, to them being seen as another tool for surveillance to curtail the free speech rights of protestors.

Some of the big cities such as Boston, Seattle, Minneapolis, and New York have specific policies against police recording with body cameras at protests.

Being uncomfortable with being monitored at demonstrations is a long-standing concern. With the advent of facial recognition and social media monitoring, these concerns are now being amplified. Body cameras watching the faces of those not happy with the police or government could be seen as a way of scaring protestors into silence.

This is how police body cam looks like. Image credit: share.america.gov

Conversely, with police tactics turning violent and brutal attacks on largely peaceful protests, there is a need to be able to monitor behavior of law enforcement. Seattle, for example, has u-turned on its policy – the mayor intends to give an emergency order to police officers to have body cameras recording when they’re working at a protest. On a national scale, mandatory body cameras are one of the proposals to reform police nationwide.

Experts in the history and law of protests warn that calling for mandatory body cameras could lead to protestors being tracked more often than police being held accountable. 

“On occasion, it reveals some of the problems, but the power dynamics are relatively unchanged,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, author of The Rise of Big Data Policing and a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia. “The same tensions will exist with body cameras at protests. Who gets to control them? Who gets to see the footage?”

How body cameras were used in the past

When a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, body cameras were used as a way to keep a watchful eye on the police during the protests that followed up the misconduct.

Later on, in 2015, more than $23 million were granted to police departments in 32 states by the Justice Department for purchasing the body cameras equipment. It was believed that this could help “mend the fabric of trust, respect, and common purpose” with police.

Yet, the events that took place in the past years with body cameras involved, have just broadened this gap. 

Even though there were cases when body cameras filmed police misconduct, some departments stood against releasing footage to the public. 

In 2018, a union representing New York City police officers sued in order to prevent it from releasing body camera footage without a court order, explaining it as a violation of a state law that makes officer disciplinary records confidential. On the other hand, those who had suffered from police abuse had to sue police to get the footage released. 

Until a journalist sued for the video`s release of the police officers shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, Chicago police officers refused to release body camera footage.

Moreover, there have been cases when people were killed by officers wearing body cameras. Yet there was no evidence for further investigation and police officers were not held accountable. In fact, they were able to choose when to turn the cameras on and when to keep them off. 

For instance, David McAtee was killed by the police during a protest earlier this month in Louisville, Kentucky, over the death of George Floyd. The officers blamed for the shooting didn`t have their body cameras turned on. As a result,  Police Chief Steve Conrad was fired by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. 

Rather than using body cameras as a powerful tool for a transparent investigation, police have used them as evidence against suspects.

Initially, the body cameras were supposed to keep a sharp eye on the law enforcement agencies. Instead, this multimillion-dollar investment served as another surveillance tool for the police, which, as to the experts, embrace the body cameras because they are able to collect evidence.

“The push for body cameras came in the wake of Ferguson, with the feeling that there was so little transparency and accountability with what police were doing in terms of use of force,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a senior counsel with the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It hasn’t necessarily played out that way.”

The fact that body cameras footage can be paired with facial recognition systems makes it even more appealing for the police to use them. As to the report, published by OneZero, more than 1,500 different organizations opted for live facial recognition on body cameras.

“If a body cam is equipped with face recognition, it becomes a very easy tool that police can use to identify the unmasked people who are standing across the protest line from them,” said Matthew Guariglia, an Electronic Frontier Foundation policy analyst.

Free speech at protests – the rules around body cameras

A review was undertaken by Levison-Waldman into the use of body cameras and how they impacted on people’s First Amendment rights at protests across 30 cities that have stated body camera policies.

The rights of citizens under the First Amendment weren’t addressed at all by policies in 18 of the cities assessed, whilst several of the others did have explicit guidelines about restricting recordings at protests. In Baltimore and New York, for example, there are exceptions for recording at protests if there’s an escalation towards violence or if a crime is being committed. Generally, though, if the situation remains peaceful, the body cameras remain turned off. 

On the flip side, places such as Washington DC and Dallas explicitly mandate body cameras to be operational during protests.

The recording of protests can be seen as intimidation of those there to voice their concerns. It’s a chilling curtailment of First Amendment rights and can even lead people to being tracked and identified through the footage, experts explained. 

“Police body cameras become video evidence of not necessarily what the police are doing, but what the protesters are doing,” Guariglia said.

Sweeping reforms around body cameras can’t be a blanket statement, warn the experts. There are some cities that’ll want all cameras used at all times because it’s thought that the issues of police brutality and officer accountability are more important than issues surrounding surveillance.

There’ll be subtlety and nuance when there’s a need for enforcement of recording and when the public demand access to the footage. Some policies could state that body cameras will only need to be switched on when there’s force being used by the police, and in that case, the footage will have to be made public. It has to have a level of community involvement in the policy-making, though.

“We understand that there are risks and benefits on both sides and different ways this can play out in public,” Levinson-Waldman said. “No matter what, it’s critical to have language saying that people aren’t being recorded because of their involvement in First Amendment activities.”

Watch and record yourself

Most of the footage taken at protests that shows the terrible actions of police officers has been recorded by the protestors themselves, with very little coming from officer body cameras. With that in mind, it’s uncertain whether having more body camera recording would have much of an impact on the policing of protests.

The experts suggest that the answer is for more protestors to make more recordings themselves.