Now that the City of Rochester has accepted a vendor for the body-worn cameras (BWC) City police officers will be wearing, they should now be fully-ensconced in the process of writing up policy documents for their full-time use. This is according to the City of Rochester’s timeline of events here. The City offers many “model policies” as envisioned by the ACLU and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as actual policy docs from similarly-sized cities in the US.
But while we wait for the formal policy document to be announced, I’m left with 5 big questions about what I’m seeing.
#5. Who are the RPD’s policy-writing partners?
The timeline notes that throughout the months of January, February and March, “RPD is working with its partners, to include the Rochester Police Locust Club” to develop a policy document for BWC use in the field. The RPD and the Locust Club – cops and more cops – we know about. Who else? How will the concerns of the public, ably voiced in community input sessions, be represented in policy meetings?
#4. What makes video “evidentiary?”
Standard in the model policies is the clause that video should be kept only if the information contained in it is considered “evidentiary” to an ongoing investigation or trial. This makes sense. But the question is how “evidentiary” is defined, and in relation to what?
If a BWC is used in a traffic stop on East Ave while there is a simultaneous investigation of underage drinking on the same street? Does evidence get stockpiled in the name of the second investigation, at the expense of the people involved in the first?
#3. Under what circumstances can “non-evidentiary” video be reexamined?
The public comments make clear that local residents are OK with keeping video on file that is currently being used in an investigation or trial. They even seem to be OK with allowing non-evidentiary video to be kept on hand. The ACLU recommends allowing non-evidentiary video files to be kept up to 6 months. But why allow the video to remain at all, if there’s no immediate reason to find the video evidentiary? The obvious answer would be to reinvestigate the video in the event that some other crime might be solved with it.
By whose authority is that video reopened? Is a warrant required to reopen the archived video? Some other benchmark? In fact,
#2. Does a subject of a BWC video get notified of the video’s status?
We can guess that the answer to this is, ‘no.’ But that raises more questions. Are we all supposed to just believe that local police have disposed of video? Or can we be informed in keeping with our right to privacy? If there is a reason to keep a tape of a resident beyond the retention policy, that certainly seems like something they should be made aware of, yet doing so just as obviously could endanger important police investigations.
#1. Can policy ever match reality?
We invest a lot of faith in our institutions: it’s a cornerstone of a functional democracy. The effectiveness of local police is no less critically based on faith and trust – even if that trust is tested on a moment-by-moment basis. But a casual read of even the most conservative model policy on body worn cameras reads like a buffet of civil rights violation.
You don’t have to fear the “dirty cop,” the “rogue,” the “out of control sargeant” nor any other made-for-TV cop bad guy to understand that the models seem like a problem. A liberal reading of even the ACLU’s model policy could lead to perpetual video records of Rochester, one side to the other. Unless Rochester’s policy ends up being a lot more conservative than the models, how well or poorly body cameras are implemented is going to come down to trust.
And it’s trust that the body cameras are supposed to improve. A tall order.