STUDY: Police Body Cameras in Danger of Being Used as ‘Instruments of Injustice’

By Kenrya Rankin Aug 03, 2016

In the wake of Korryn Gaines’ death at the hands of Baltimore County police officers this week, a new report on the nation’s police body-worn camera programs proves especially relevant. Yesterday (August 2), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn released a report that examines the programs implemented by 50 departments—and finds them lacking.

Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard” zooms in on the programs implemented by police departments in 50 U.S. municipalities: Albuquerque, Aurora (Colo.), Austin, Baltimore, Baltimore County, Baton Rouge, Boston, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fairfax County (Va.), Fayetteville, Ferguson, Fort Worth, Fresno, Houston, Las Vegas, Louisville, Los Angeles, Memphis, Mesa, Miami, Miami-Dade County, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Montgomery County (Md.), New Orleans, New York, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Omaha, Parker (Colo.), Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (Penn.), Rochester (N.Y.), Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, Tucson and Washington, D.C.

Per the report:

In the wake of high-profile incidents in Ferguson, Staten Island, North Charleston, Baltimore and elsewhere, law enforcement agencies across the country are rapidly adopting body-worn cameras for their officers. One of the main selling points for these cameras is their potential to provide transparency into some police interactions, and to help protect civil rights, especially in heavily policed communities of color.

But accountability is not automatic. Whether these cameras make police more accountable—or simply intensify police surveillance of communities—depends on how the cameras and footage are used.

The scorecard evaluates each program using criteria endorsed by a coalition of 35 civil, media and privacy rights groups—including the American Civil Liberties Union, NAACP, National Council of La Raza and Asian Americans Advancing Justice—in 2015.

Per a statement posted to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights’ website, the scorecard evaluates whether each department:

  • Makes its policy publicly and readily available
  • Limits officer discretion on when to record
  • Addresses personal privacy concerns
  • Prohibits officer pre-report viewing
  • Limits retention of footage
  • Protects footage against tampering and misuse
  • Makes footage available to individuals filing complaints
  • Limits the use of biometric technologies

The report makes it easy to see how each department is doing at a glance, and clearly marks programs that are funded by the Department of Justice, including those in Chicago, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C.

Key findings:

  • None of the departments met all eight criteria; only 13 satisfied more than two categories
  • Both Ferguson and Fresno failed on every measure
  • None of the departments unconditionally bar officers from watching video before filing an incident report; six ban vieweing for major incidents, including officer shootings
  • Three departments have failed to release their polices to the public; they are Aurora (Colo), Detroit and Pittsburgh
  • Just 26 of the 50 departments make footage easily available to the public online


“As police departments across the nation begin to equip more officers with body cameras, it is imperative to recognize that cameras are just a tool—not a substitute—for broader reforms of policing practices,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights said in the statement. “Without carefully crafted policy safeguards, these devices could become instruments of injustice rather than tools of accountability.”