Since their promise is precisely that abusive police officers won’t be able to hide their misbehavior, law enforcement cannot be allowed to decide what footage to withhold.

Yet even most transparency advocates wouldn’t want our naked burglary victim’s footage uploaded to YouTube. “People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don’t think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public,” LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said. “Families call us when they’re in crisis. Victims call us when they’ve had horrific things done to them by evil people. To make those things public revictimizes them and doesn’t serve justice.” And that is hardly the end of circumstances where footage would best be left unreleased. Say, for instance, that homicide detectives are canvassing the residents of an apartment complex for information about a murder that happened the prior evening. In gang territory or a neighborhood with a strong norm against “snitching,” the thought that any criminal enforcer could send someone down to the police video library to see who cooperated with the cops would be chilling. What would a Stringer Bell or Tony Soprano do with such access?   

The ACLU has as good an answer as any I’ve seen to the difficult question of when police should have to begin recording themselves: “They should require that a police officer activate his or her camera when responding to a call for service or at the initiation of any other law enforcement or investigative encounter between a police officer and a member of the public. That would include stops, frisks, searches, arrests, consensual interviews and searches, enforcement actions of all kinds, and any encounter that becomes in any way hostile.”