A camera on every cop: What could possibly go wrong?

By Dan Raile , written on December 9, 2015

From The Surveillance Valley Desk

From the FBI to the ACLU, nearly everyone seems to agree that adorning police officers with video cameras is a good idea. Another candle on the altar of Steve Jobs.

Political pressure for the cameras has been rising – along with the stock price of TASER International, leading producer of police camera systems – since just after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer. Community demands have led to political decrees, which now have police departments across the country scrambling to equip their patrols and establish policies.

“By city government standards we are moving at warp speed,”Susan Merritt, CIO of the San Francisco Police Dept., said by phone. This past summer, Mayor Ed Lee designated $3.3 million in the city budget for body cameras. Nationally, the Justice Department last month announced $23 million in grants for body cameras distributed among 73 departments in 32 states.

The devil is in the details, and this particular devil is lifted right out of Philip Dick, at its worst. What could go wrong with creating augmented-human supercops?

Anyone who’s been drunk in a group setting since the release of the iPhone knows that taking a photo or video is a subtle form of violence, especially when you’re not at your best. And now we are rigging our police officers out to create a vast documentary of the worst days in thousands of peoples’ lives.

Even while providing for some level of increased accountability, especially in egregious situations of police brutality, this rapid deployment could cause a number of problems.  

How will people know they are being recorded? Some cities have mandated in their RFPs that the cameras have lights to indicate when the camera is on. They might consider little speakers that read out the Miranda warnings as well.

The US Supreme Court has ruled in the past that cameras with better-than-human vision capabilities cannot be used in aerial surveillance – the reason law enforcement can’t use thermal imaging to search out pot grows without a warrant, for example.

But few departments give clear guidance as to what sorts of biometric or image recognition software can be applied to the footage, enhancing vision past the human threshold.

Perhaps the biggest hidden cost of the body camera is labor. In most cases, the officers themselves have to tag the recordings with metadata details like the case number, citation number, related 911 call, names, addresses, and whether arrest were made. A recent study in Spokane, Wa., determined that this would take an officer roughly an hour each day. Departments must further devote personnel-hours to the review and redaction of footage and audio for public release.

This is both crucial and time-consuming: for the recordings to have their desired public benefit, they have to be reliably available to the public. At the same time, they have to be edited to protect the privacy of (depending on your state’s public records laws) victims, juveniles, witnesses and home and business owners.

“That implies a huge staff to look at and redact, and represents a huge cost that is higher than that for the technology and storage,” said Bill Schrier, CIO of the Seattle Police Department, by phone. Last year, during a body camera pilot program in Seattle, a citizen asked for all the existing bodycam footage from Schrier’s department, which was legally obligated to comply with the request. Realizing it couldn’t possibly supply all that video – roughly 300 terabytes at the time – in a properly redacted format in the given time frame, the Seattle department instead took a radical step: it hired the requester, Tim Clemans, to help sort out the problem.

At the Code for America Summit last month in Oakland, Schrier estimated that it would have taken something like 60 people a total of 60 years to review and redact all the footage.

That particular request is certainly an outlier, but Schrier told the Code for America audience it highlighted a real problem. “Redaction is a major unresolved issue,” he said. "If it’s not done right, you end up making someone a victim twice.”

San Francisco never got around to instituting its planned pilot programs before Mayor Lee announced his full-deployment initiative earlier this year.

“There was a grant for a pilot to purchase cameras. The department did that, and it was moving ahead with a policy for the pilot project and that was moving along. But then in April the mayor announced a program which was larger than we had anticipated,” said Police Commission Secretary Rachael Kilshaw.

The Police Commission voted on its final policy recommendation last week, and the department’s request for proposals from technology providers ends next week. Merritt said she hoped to have the first wave of cameras out as early as January, for field tests.

That order of operations bucks what Schrier says is emerging as a best practice: first do a pilot, then get the community and elected officials to hammer out the permanent policy framework, and then go out looking for the right technology.

“So far most [implementations] have been shoot, ready, aim … sorry, that is a bad police analogy,” Schrier said.

The policy that emerged last week in San Francisco remains ambiguous on several key points.

Officers will only be required to give notice that they are recording “when feasible.” As for public release:

“The [SFPD’s] goal is to release [body camera] recordings to the greatest extent possible unless disclosure would:


  • endanger the safety of a wintess or another person involved in the investigation
  • jeopardize the successful completion of an investigation, or
  • violate local, state and/or federal laws, including but not limited to, the right of privacy”


The policy provides an exhaustive list of instances when officers must activate their cameras (during any arrest, traffic stop, service of a warrant, search, pursuit, mental health evaluation and more) but does not indicate the consequences for failing to do so.

At last week’s hearing, Commission President Suzy Loftus insisted that the policy was a work in progress, and would be subject to further refinement. CIO Merritt said she expects to field test the top technology bidders throughout 2016, giving the department about a year to nail down the details before full implementation.

The city’s RFP, which was developed simultaneously but separately from the policy discussions, makes no mention of biometrics or indicator lights. Merritt did say that the department is already hiring up to meet the laborious demands of review and redaction.

By perverse coincidence, just before the final bodycam policy was debated last week before the Police Commission, an officer involved shooting took place in the Bayview, and was captured by citizen smartphone.

In response to the uproar over the video, Mayor Ed Lee promised on Monday to institute a review of SFPD's Use of Force policies and to mandate de-escalation training (wait, that wasn't mandatory?) Shortly afterwards, Police Chief Greg Suhr proposed yet another technological fix: the time has come for SFPD to start carrying stun-guns, he said. Before firing some 15 shots into Mario Woods, officers first fired beanbag rounds at him, to no avail. Suhr suggested the fatality could have been averted by electro-shock.

“We would like to have Tasers. That will be part of the discussion that will be taken up when we open our use-of-force policy,” Suhr at a Monday press conference.

“I don’t think you’d all be standing here talking to me, but again, we don’t have Tasers.”

The SFPD attempted to deploy Tasers in 2013, but the initiative was rejected citing public concerns. What’s changed since then?

“I think the department has made tremendous progress with crisis-intervention training and de-escalation,” Commission president Loftus told the Chronicle this week, “We’re also going to be equipping our officers with body cameras. So there are a number of changed circumstances.”

For TASER International and its growing list of competitors (not on that list: Motorola announced in October that it was entering the booming law enforcement bodycam market), this is all welcome news. For everyone else, it might begin to provoke some doubt.

When police behave badly, is the proper response to give them new toys? Can technology save us from our protectors?