Privacy and Safety Top Legal Issues at Police Cams Symposium

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NC Law Review
More than 100 students and scholars gathered at the Carolina Club in Chapel Hill for the annual North Carolina Law
Review symposium. Photo by James McLeod 2L.

North Carolina Law Review students host “Badge Cams as Data and Deterrent” to examine the role of video in documenting the relationship between the public, law enforcement and their government.

From the perspective of a camera worn on a police officer’s badge, shaky, chaotic video shows the torsos of fellow officers struggling to subdue an unseen suspect on the ground. “Stop resisting!” someone shouts. A second video, a birds-eye-view from a nearby building’s security camera, plays the moments before police approach the suspect. His hands are in the air, and he slowly lays down on the sidewalk before a group of officers race over and surround him. At least one officer is seen repeatedly kicking him.

Accountability, public safety, data security and privacy issues surrounding police body-worn cameras led the day’s discussion at the annual North Carolina Law Review symposium on Friday, Nov. 3, in Chapel Hill, N.C. The student-run journal at UNC School of Law brought together more than 100 law students, faculty, scholars and practitioners for a conversation on “Badge Cams as Data and Deterrent: Law Enforcement, the Public and the Press in the Age of Digital Video.”

“We had been thinking about police body-worn cameras in terms of access, transparency and privacy,” said Mary-Rose Papandrea, associate dean for academic affairs and media law professor at UNC School of Law, referring to last year’s national headlines about the Charlotte, N.C., police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott. Papandrea was one of three symposium faculty chairs and said the group was thrilled when the journal editors selected their proposal for this topic.

Speakers included experts in criminal law and procedure, evidence, civil procedure, First Amendment, media law, privacy law, civil liberties and technology.

Recording Police Interactions Can Curb Harmful Behavior

According to University of Washington School of Law Professor Mary Fan, while body-worn cameras can curb harmful patterns of police behavior, it’s difficult to ensure that the public can access the government’s body-worn camera video databases to track those patterns. Other challenges include body cameras not being worn or turned on during crucial moments and the limited perspective that even video offers.

“We think when we see a video that we’ve seen the evidence, but if you have multiple videos, the whole story can change,” said Fan.

Margot Kaminski, a professor at Colorado Law, mentioned that citizen and police awareness of constant surveillance can create a chilling effect on both sides.

“People behave differently when they are watched,” she said. “People change their behavior to conform to majority norms.”

NC Law Review Panel
From left, Lauren Kosches 3L, Bryce Clayton Newell, and Mary-Rose Papandrea. Photo by James McLeod 2L.

Privacy Perils Are Real

Recent studies found contradictory results between body-worn cameras and a decrease in the use of force, according to Bryce Clayton Newell, a professor at the University of Kentucky School of Information Science. He said officers were often in favor of recording interactions because it provided evidence, but it also introduced privacy concerns when citizens would reveal very personal information about themselves and the videos would end up on YouTube.

“If you think that body cameras are a significant threat to privacy, you are right,” said Woodrow Hartzog, a law and computer science professor at Northeastern University. “Making information hard, but possible, to access is a potential compromise that could serve the values of both transparency and obscurity.”

Hartzog mentioned the reasonable expectation of privacy in public is misguided because it’s difficult to articulate the definition of public. “We live our lives knowing that most of our actions are unlikely to be known, even if they happen in public,” said Hartzog, citing that no one remembers who sat near them at a restaurant last week.

“Privacy harms are real, and they’re important to acknowledge, but that does not mean that we let these problems drive policy,” said Fan. New technology arrives much faster than policy changes. “Companies are working really hard on automated redaction using artificial intelligence. We should let policy drive technology.”

Innovative Advances in Body-Worn Camera Technology

How we design new technology determines power, said Hartzog. People should be able to request that they not be recorded, and for those who are recorded, they should be able to request that it not be stored indefinitely. Hartzog also suggested that facial recognition should be prohibited from body-worn camera technology.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, shared his thoughts about a handful of new technology advances in police body cams that he had seen at a recent trade show. Among those included:

  • Outward facing monitors: “These can make people uncomfortable, but is a good reminder to people that they are being recorded.”
  • Live-streaming to police headquarters: “This is not the right balance for privacy,” and poses cybersecurity challenges.
  • Geo-tracking the location of officers: Could be a civil liberties issue. “How will your workforce feel if you are monitoring them that closely?”
  • Automatic camera activation: Video recording begins with calls from dispatch, physiological changes like an increase in heart rate or sudden acceleration, the opening of a car door or gun holster, siren activation, or detecting the sound of a gunshot.
  • Anger detection: Artificial intelligence listens for raised voices and looks for aggressive movements.

“The North Carolina Law Review, with the help of Professors Papandrea, Myers and Ardia, was thrilled to be able to bring together distinguished professionals in the areas of privacy and media law to present on such a relevant and timely issue,” said Lauren Kosches 3L, symposium editor for the North Carolina Law Review. “Our goal was to facilitate a lively and scholarly discussion on police body cameras and the data that comes along with them, and we definitely were able to accomplish this. We are currently editing a variety of articles by some of the presenters for publication in our symposium issue in June.”

-November 15, 2017

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