Local Policing and Point-of-View Cameras

There’s a story about my town’s (Whitewater, Wisconsin’s) decision to equip its on-patrol officers with point-of-view cameras. A small video camera will record officer interactions with residents. Reportedly, all interactions will be recorded, and at the

end of each shift, officers [will] download all videos into a general file that would get deleted automatically after 120 days. But videos of more significant actions — an arrest, chase, fight or anything an officer thinks might warrant more review — gets saved to a different location from which only supervisors may delete a video.

There are two questions about any POV recording regimen: will you record, and under what circumstances? There’s nothing wrong (and much benefit) with recording encounters, just as there’s no legal impedient to residents ordinarily photographing officers or public buildings, etc.

Quite simply, in a free society photography is not a crime, and it’s not a right only of a few.

Candidly, if the police are to record encounters, the only sensible policy is to record all encounters. Any other option will inevitably raise suspicion that officers record selectively only in circumstances that show them favorably, but decline to record encounters in which they might be acting outside of policy or the law.

One reads that in nearby Edgerton, Wisconsin, local officials decided to allow recordings from a body cam at an officer’s discretion. (Perhaps they’ve changed their policy since; I don’t know.)

A selective approach should never be any town’s policy, and the Edgerton city attorney’s explanation from 2011 of why selective recording should be allowed shows how ignorant or patronizing his argument is:

City attorney Dale Pope acknowledged that’s a very “subjective” standard, but he told the council that narrowing the guidelines for use of the cameras wouldn’t necessarily help.

“The problem you have is it’s very difficult to define a standard that’s going to work all the time,” Pope said.

Pope said if the city had a mandate that officers should activate a body cam at every traffic stop, and an officer forgot one time, it could inadvertently appear as an impropriety or that the officer was “trying to cover something up.”

Got that? It’s better to permit ever-present suspicion from selective use than risk occasional suspicion when an officer fails (or chooses not) to activate his video camera.

The two kinds of suspicion would not, of course, be the same: the first is endemic to a willy-nilly exercise of discretion, while the second would be a rarer, but legitimate concern about whether officers failed to comply with policy (cameras always on) or sought to hide misconduct.

Hard to say what’s worse: that Edgerton’s city attorney couldn’t see this distinction or that he hoped others couldn’t see it.

(It’s not the first example of poor policing in Edgerton. For more about the failure of Edgerton’s police force to handle properly a pursuit K9, see these posts 1, 2, 3, and 4, and 5.)

The only sound policy for a POV camera (or dash cam) is always on during each and every encounter, to exonerate officers of false charges and confirm legitimate charges of misconduct.

Posted earlier at Daily Adams.

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