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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

April 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Ambiguity surrounds IC body camera policy as deadline nears

With fewer than three months left to meet the deadline to have body cameras on officers, questions remain about Ithaca College’s pending body camera policy and how the cameras and footage will be used.

More than a year after the college announced its plans to put body cameras on all Public Safety police officers, in response to protests by resident assistants regarding alleged racial aggression from campus officers, Terri Stewart, director of the Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management, said the college hopes to have an approved policy for the cameras by the end of the semester. The college would become the next school in a nationwide trend of higher education institutions that are adopting such policies. Almost every major city in the U.S. has equipped its law enforcement officers with body cameras. However, experts still pose a number of questions about body camera policies and the answers, they say, dictate the effectiveness of body cameras in making police more transparent and accountable.

Those questions include whether body camera footage will be made public, whether all interactions between students and Public Safety officers will be recorded, whether Public Safety officers will have the discretion to turn them on and off, and whether Public Safety officers will be able to review the footage before they write reports. Some experts said they believe that without an effective and transparent policy, the use of body cameras will not make a difference.

Stewart would not comment on the college’s body camera policy because it is still in draft form. Individual campus police officers would also not comment on body cameras, referring The Ithacan back to Stewart.

Stewart also said that over the summer, Public Safety officers were trained to use body cameras and the software associated with the cameras, which were purchased from Taser International. According to The New York Times, Taser controls approximately 75 percent of the body camera business nationwide. Currently, the draft policy still needs to be reviewed and approved by the officers union — the United Government Security Officers of America, which represents some Public Safety personnel — and the Office of the General Counsel. Finally, Public Safety will hold a public forum for comments on the policy before it is finalized.

In August, Upturn and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights released a scorecard of body camera programs in 50 U.S. cities. The scorecard established eight criteria to judge body camera policies.

According to the scorecard, a policy would score a green in each corresponding section if the department published the most recent publicly available version of its policy on its website in an easily accessible location for the public; the policy protects “vulnerable individuals,” such as victims of sex crimes, from being recorded without consent; it requires departments to delete unflagged footage within six months; it allows individuals who are filing police-misconduct complaints to view all relevant footage; it describes when officers must record and requires officers to provide reasoning for not recording required events; it limits the use of biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, to identify people in the footage; it requires officers to file a written report or statement before footage is reviewed; and it prohibits unauthorized access and indicates that all access to recorded footage will be logged.

Harlan Yu, a principal at Upturn, a technology consulting firm, studies how new technologies affect civil rights. He said for a policy to be beneficial to the campus community, it needs to succeed in all criteria.

“I would look closely at the scorecard, at each of our eight criteria, and see that the campus police eventually scores a green in each of their criteria,” Yu said.

However, none of the 50 cities included on the scorecard met the criteria for all eight categories, and only 13 departments were able to fulfill more than two categories. Only the Parker, Colorado, policy was able to avoid any red X’s, which indicate that a policy either does not address an issue or runs directly against the scorecard’s principles. Yu said the current states of most policies hinder support for body cameras.

“If the policies were better, you would see more people getting behind cameras,” Yu said.

Yu said that once the college’s policy is announced, he will evaluate it using the criteria from the scorecard. The policy must be comprehensive for the cameras to have an impact, he said.

“I think there’s a popular misconception that just because a police department has body cameras they’re going to be transparent and accountable,” Yu said.

Stewart said officers are excited to wear body cameras.

“Body-worn cameras are something I’m confident in saying on behalf of our team we were pleased to have happen,” she said. “It’s something that the officers will tell you they have wanted for some time.”

Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University and former Maryland police officer, said body cameras reduce police wrongdoing and increase accountability and transparency among law enforcement.

“I’m an advocate of body cameras even though I understand their limitations,” Burke said.

The University of South Florida released a study in October 2015 that examined the body camera pilot program of the Orlando Police Department from March 2014 through February 2015. The study found that officers used force 53 percent less than in the 12 months prior. Furthermore, complaints against those officers dropped by 65 percent.

Marieme Foote, president of the Student Governance Council, said she thinks body cameras are a step in the right direction but also wants the policy to include specifics. Foote said she thinks body camera footage should be available to the public and that the cameras should always be on when an officer is on duty.

At Georgia Southern University, Chief of Police Laura McCullough said body camera footage involved in an active criminal investigation is only available to the solicitor in a case and the defense counsel during the discovery portion of a trial. If footage is not a part of an open investigation, members of the public can request footage with a public records request. Georgia Southern is a public school, so an officer’s body camera footage is public record. This will not apply to Ithaca College, which is a private institution.

McCullough said officers at Georgia Southern are responsible for turning on their cameras once they initiate a one-on-one encounter.

McCullough also said she has seen a reduction in the number of complaints against officers and in the frequency officers use force.

“We’ve been very pleased,” McCullough said. “I think the campus community overall was very pleased … because it’s not just for us, but it’s also for them.”

At other universities, body cameras have played significant roles. While campus police officers kill significantly fewer people each year than city police officers, they are not immune to doing so. On July 19, 2015, a white University of Cincinnati police officer, Ray Tensing, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Samuel DuBose. The shooting was captured by Tensing’s body camera. Tensing was later fired by the university and has been charged with murder and voluntary manslaughter. The trial is set to begin this month.

Sakira Cook, a counsel in the public policy department of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said body cameras do not solve all problems with policing today.

“They are not a panacea,” Cook said. “You can’t just put a body camera policy in place and put some cameras on police officers and think that the issues between police and communities of color — or police and citizens in general — are going to disappear.”

Cook said that even if a department adopts the “gold standard” for body camera policies, which would include all of the criteria on the scorecard, that does not replace broader reforms.

At the college, those broader reforms could be coming. The Office of Public Safety will undergo an external review by safety and security consultant Margolis Healy, beginning in November.

The review will evaluate the following existing procedures: internal investigations and disciplinary processes; racial profiling data collection; use of force; vehicle, traffic and pedestrian stops; initiatives and formal goals related to diversity, inclusion and engagement; and hiring, recruitment, selection and retention policies and practices, according to an Intercom announcement from Sept. 9.

Cook also said an important feature of a strong body camera policy is reprimands for those who don’t follow it.

“One of the important backstops of a strong policy are what the disciplinary procedures are for violations of the policy,” she said.

Max Denning can be reached at mdenning@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @TheMaxDenning