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Privacy, other questions surround body cameras 

A Rochester police officer strikes a pregnant woman in the back of the head and throws her to the ground. Bystander video of the event — an August 2013 altercation between the officer and Rochester resident Brenda Hardaway — lands on social media, creating a stir.

The police explanation went like this: If only you'd seen what happened right before, when the woman and the officer swung at each other, Ali-Frazier style, in the driveway.

A year later, Rochester police take resident Clem Long into custody in connection with alleged drug activity. A bystander video on social media shows an officer repeatedly striking the man.

The police say: If only the video showed what happened right before, when Long resisted arrest and another man attacked the officer with a metal broom.

Body-worn cameras are one way to remove the "if only" from police-community encounters, advocates say, though even they are careful to point out that the technology isn't the answer to every question.

The City of Rochester is reportedly studying the use of body cameras, though it's not clear who is studying what and when the results will be made public; Mayor Lovely Warren did not respond to requests for an interview on this story. (Monroe County will also likely undertake a pilot program for the sheriff's department.)

Police departments across the country are outfitting their officers with body cameras in hopes that the technology will help ease tensions with their communities and protect the lives and safety of officers and the public. The New York Times reports that the movement really picked up steam after the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August, which triggered outrage and protests.

Though there hasn't been a systemic study, anecdotal reports show that complaints against police drop when officers wear body cameras.

A small police department in Rialto, California, for example, saw an 88 percent reduction in complaints against its police force the first year the cameras were used, says KaeLyn Rich, director of the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

And police departments in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee, and Oakland, California, report decreases in the number of complaints after officers began wearing body cameras, according to media reports.

But it's not clear whether the reductions are because many complaints are unjust in the first place, says John Klofas, professor of criminal justice at Rochester Institute of Technology, or because everyone — police and the public — behaves better when they know they're being recorded.

The troubling part, Rich says, is that many departments are charging ahead with cameras without policies in place to govern their use.

There's the very basic question of how communities pay for the technology, keeping in mind that, given the nature of police work, the cameras break frequently.

But there are also more nuanced questions of privacy for police and citizens, fairness, and trust. Who decides when the cameras are turned on and off? Who gets to view the footage? How will the footage be used? How long will it be stored? What if someone wants to speak to an officer confidentially? What if the people involved in an incident — as suspects or victims — are underage?

But there's a more fundamental question, too, Klofas says, that's equal parts practical and philosophical. The camera's eye may not blink, but what, exactly, does it see?

"It's a mistake to think that the camera will answer all questions because the camera sees everything. It doesn't," Klofas says. "It doesn't see anything on the periphery. What goes on outside the field of vision of the camera that might influence an officer's behavior? And it often doesn't see anything as it unfolds — the camera may be put on at some point during an event."

Would footage shot from different angles, heights, and distances lend itself to varying interpretations of events? Chest-mounted body cameras — there are different styles — might not be useful in shootings, for example, because officers are typically trained to hold their weapons straight out in front of them, Klofas says.

"The camera would catch your thumbs," he says.

Los Angeles is attempting to address this question by sending observers out with police officers, Klofas says. The observer will take notes during an officer's shift, Klofas says, and those notes will be compared with the camera's recordings "because no one really understands at this point what the camera sees or doesn't see."

More questions: Will officers have the presence of mind to turn the cameras on during an incident? And is that what they should be focused on when they're chasing down a suspect or trying to avoid gunfire?

"That's a very good question," Klofas says. "I think there is a strong argument that is made on that one that says, in the heat of things, people don't even want to stop and think about that."

The United Christian Leadership Ministry and the faith-based Coalition for Police Reform have been vocal advocates for body cameras in Rochester.

The groups have held forums on the use of force by the Rochester Police Department and have been outspoken in their support for residents who've had dramatic, high-profile encounters with the police, including Hardaway and Long. Group members have lobbied individual City Council members and Council as a whole for cameras and for an independent civilian review board to oversee the police.

The Rev. Lewis Stewart, president of United Christian Leadership Ministry, says that the body cameras must be on at all times; officers should not be able to turn them on and off. That's the only way you're going to win the community's trust, he says.

"People do not trust the police," Stewart says. "They are highly suspicious of them. And officers have been known in other communities to turn off those cameras when they sense that there's going to be a provocative or intense encounter."

Stewart's right about that. A couple of examples: a Daytona Beach police officer resigned earlier this year after he reportedly turned off his body camera during an arrest, and a New Orleans officer turned off her camera before a shooting, though she said she did so because it was the end of her shift and she was headed back to the station, according to media reports.

Stewart's also worried about police doctoring footage to suit their needs.

"We need to look at that and make sure that it is not erased," he says, "that it is available at all times."

But Mike Mazzeo, head of the Rochester police union the Locust Club, says that having the cameras on all the time might not be fair to officers. What if officers, in an unguarded moment, say something about a boss or a co-worker? Could that footage be used against them?

Klofas says that dashboard cameras in police cars are sometimes set up to start recording when officers turn on their siren or open their door. Maybe some sort of similar trigger mechanism can be implemented with body cameras, he says.

Klofas says that the people who want the cameras on all the time might regret it later on.

"I've looked at a lot of these tapes, and they're the most boring things in the world," he says. "I mean, think about what it would look like if you had a camera on you."

One of the interesting things about the body-camera debate is that the technology is attracting cautious support from social justice and civil rights groups that would normally bristle at the idea of increased police surveillance, including the NYCLU and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"I don't know if 'supportive' is the right word," says Rich, of the NYCLU's Genesee Valley chapter. "If used appropriately, they could really be a win-win for both the police and the communities that they serve. We're not necessarily saying that everything should be available all the time."

While the ACLU generally takes a dim view of the proliferation of surveillance cameras in the US, "police on-body cameras are different because of their potential to serve as a check against the abuse of power by police officers," says a paper written by ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley.

Colin O' Malley, of the local social justice group Metro Justice, says that while the group supports "mechanisms that will lead to real police accountability in police-community relations in Rochester," group members haven't formed a strong opinion on body cameras.

Good policy is the answer to privacy and other concerns about body cameras, many advocates say. To move forward with the technology without a considered, clear, and highly structured policy is foolhardy, they say.

"I don't see us buying cameras and people just pinning them on," says Loretta Scott, president of Rochester City Council. "I don't want us to take too long studying it, but I want us to do it right, because there are matters of privacy for the officers, certainly."

Scott says that used appropriately, the cameras could help repair the deep rift that exists between the police and certain communities in Rochester — particularly communities of color.

"People don't have a high level of trust. I mean, it just is what it is," she says. "And if there is this other piece of technology that could help enhance that, I think it would benefit both the police and the community."


WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGERY
This footage was shot by Dayton Beach police wearing body cameras in September 2013. According to news reports, police opened fire on a man who was attacking his girlfriend with a knife. The man survived.

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