In recent years, the highly publicized deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and dozens of other Black Americans at the hands of police officers have sparked national outrage and emotional calls for increased accountability. Families, communities, legislators, and even some police departments have been pushing for the expansion of body camera programs among law enforcement agencies to promote transparency and keep everyone safe.
The use of body-worn camera (BWC) equipment among U.S. law enforcement agencies has increased significantly since gaining popularity after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. By 2016, nearly half (47 percent) of all “general-purpose” law enforcement agencies in the U.S. were using commercially available BWCs.
Although federal law enforcement officials rarely patrol communities or respond to emergencies, Department of Justice (DOJ) agents occasionally interact with the public during certain operations. In response to public demand for police accountability, the DOJ has announced a new policy that requires federal officers to use and activate BWCs in specific circumstances. A BWC is a special camera with a microphone and external data storage that allows audio and video recordings of the wearer’s activity to be stored and analyzed later.
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What Does the New Body-Worn Camera Policy Require?
According to a memorandum released by the Office of the Deputy Attorney General, the new BWC policy will apply to several different federal law enforcement “components,” including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).
Each of these components will be required to:
- Designate a senior official to develop a policy and “phased implementation plan” that complies with the new requirements within 30 days
- Ensure that all participants in DOJ task forces are aware of the new BWC policy
- Create internal policies which must describe:
- DOJ officers’ responsibilities concerning carrying, operating, maintaining, securing, activating, and deactivating BWC equipment
- Types of BWC equipment authorized for DOJ officer use
- The length of time BWC footage is captured and recorded before activation
- Any specific requirements related to the use of BWC equipment for “specialized or sensitive” investigations
- Departmental procedures regarding the collection, storage, access, or use of BWC recordings
- Departmental procedures regarding “expedited public release” of BWC recordings of cases resulting in severe or fatal injury
- Submit a Privacy Impact Assessment and annual privacy review plan for the new BWC policy to the DOJ’s Chief Privacy and Civil Liberties Officer before implementing the policy
- Ensure the BWC policy complies with all federal record-keeping rules and regulations by consulting with the Office of Records Management
- Evaluate the resources needed to fully implement the new BWC policy by working with the Justice Management Division
- Develop internal metrics to evaluate the impact of new BWC policies
Additionally, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys will be required to develop training materials for prosecutors to outline how BWC recordings may be used as evidence and describe the implications of such recordings in discovery proceedings.
Why Do They Require This Now?
Why is the DOJ just now requiring BWC equipment use for federal officers? Until recently, DOJ policy prohibited federal officers from using BWC equipment, maintaining that body camera use could jeopardize potentially sensitive federal investigations. In October 2019, the Attorney General initiated a new pilot program to evaluate the use of BWC equipment for federal officers in multiple cities.
The initial pilot program ended in September 2020. In October 2020, the DOJ announced its decision to allow state, local, territorial, and tribal officers on federal task forces to use BWC equipment. The new policy allowed “federally deputized” officers to activate BWC equipment while:
- Serving arrest warrants
- Executing search warrants
- Carrying out other planned arrest operations
More recently, in September 2021, the DOJ officially launched the initial phase of its new Body-Worn Camera Program. This program requires federal officers to use BWC equipment during certain pre-planned law enforcement activities.
The Detroit and Phoenix divisions of the ATF began using BWC equipment immediately during pre-planned operations. The DEA, FBI, and USMS are slated to start rollouts of the program’s first phase in the following weeks.
The DOJ relies on Congress to provide the funds to supply federal officers across the U.S. with the BWC equipment they need.
Regarding the reasoning behind the new BWC equipment policies, Attorney General Merrick Garland stated his belief that law enforcement is “most effective” when accountability and trust exist between officers and the communities they serve. Garland expressed his hope that BWC use will “promote transparency and confidence” in U.S. communities, states, localities, and tribes.
Potential Impact of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Shooting Cases
While BWC equipment has apparent benefits, body cameras are not a magic cure-all. Some studies have demonstrated that law enforcement officers who wear body cameras use force less often and receive fewer civilian complaints. However, other studies have found little to no difference in the use of force or the rate of complaints about officers with BWC equipment.
Ultimately, the attitudes of individual police departments likely have more of an impact on accountability for police shootings and other uses of force.
However, when police shooting cases occur, BWC equipment may provide valuable evidence for victims, assuming the equipment is correctly used. Attorneys and investigators alike may be able to use body camera footage to better understand the facts, seek justice, and advocate for better policies in the future.
Find out More from Our Georgia Shooting and Civil Rights Lawyers
If you were hurt or if someone close to you was injured or killed in a police shooting, the civil rights attorneys of Butler Kahn are here to help. We can provide the individualized attention and dedication your case deserves so you can effectively pursue a fair outcome. Contact us to find out more about how we can help in a free initial consultation.