(As originally published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch on Oct. 30, 2015.)
By Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia
CGG2Much has been made of the possibilities of body-worn cameras (BWCs) in policing in Virginia and across the nation.
In our report, “Getting to Win-Win: The Use of Body-Worn Cameras in Virginia Policing,” the ACLU of Virginia reviews 59 local policies and one draft “model” state policy that are in place or recommended to guide deployment of body-worn cameras in Virginia.
As the report indicates, current policies fall short of ideal in protecting the interests of the public and the police using them. Achieving a win-win in the use of BWCs will require greater attention to protecting the rights of people exercising their First Amendment rights, the privacy of crime victims and witnesses and the responsibility and accountability of police for proper deployment and use of the cameras and the data they collect.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of data acquisition and retention, however, police, community members and taxpayers must first recognize that BWCs are only a tool.
Localities should make the choice whether to deploy them using a process that assures the full engagement of community members in the development of the policies to guide their use. Virginians must recognize the deployment of body cameras cannot and will not solve problems such as racial profiling, excessive use of force or other police abuses. Virginians also must recognize that law enforcement cannot solve community problems arising from poverty, drug use and other social ills. Society cannot arrest its way out of a public health problem or school discipline issue.
To address these larger community problems, there must be a holistic approach that incorporates education, health care and drug treatment and economic development.
Communities — and the elected leaders who serve them — must commit to funding public safety as a priority recognizing that underpaid and undervalued police compromise our safety. Public safety should be seen as a core function and fundamental expense of government, not a revenue stream.
Police departments and the state or local jurisdictions they serve should not create, facilitate or allow the development of a dependence on financial returns from policing (asset forfeiture, “million-dollar mile,” red light cameras vs. extended yellow, success measured by increased arrests, tickets, summonses vs. increased safety outcomes).
If a locality or the commonwealth decides to purchase and deploy BWCs on its law enforcement personnel, it should do so only if it is committed to funding the program from its general funds and in its base budget.
In order for BWCs to be an effective tool of accountability and transparency, the culture in the law enforcement agency that deploys them must support both. There must be a culture of service in the agency. Law enforcement personnel (whether in the local police department, sheriff’s office or state police) must reflect the communities they serve. They must also see the people in the community not as the “policed” but as the public they serve.
There must be a culture of transparency at all levels in every law enforcement agency. The “default” value in the agency must support openness rather than secrecy. The leadership of the law enforcement agency and all levels of government should take seriously the policy embraced in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, that the Act “shall be liberally construed to promote an increased awareness by all persons of governmental activities and afford every opportunity to citizens to witness the operations of government.”
Information should be disclosed, rather than withheld, whenever possible. In addition, law enforcement officials should take seriously the Act’s direction that it should not be “construed to discourage the free discussion by government officials or employees of public matters with the citizens of the Commonwealth.”
There should be a willingness to engage the public in setting law enforcement agency policies on “use of force” and other policies directly affecting the people being served. There must be a culture of accountability. The people’s authority should be paramount. There should be a willingness to collect and report data that permits evaluation of departmental practices. There must be openness to independent evaluation of outcomes good and bad.
Finally, there must be a culture of constitutionality. Police must see themselves as the guardians of the Constitution. Constitutional policing should be the paramount value in hiring, evaluation, training, policies and procedures, including policies on “consent searches,” pretextual stops and use of body-worn cameras and other technologies.
A body-worn camera can be a tool that supports transparency, accountability and constitutional policing if — and only if — the proper policies and training are in place before cameras are deployed, and the communities and departments into which they are deployed understand that they are only a tool.
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