Baltimore pushes "privacy" provisions for police body cams. Wait... what?

While the trials of Baltimore police officers involved in the Freddie Gray arrest turned out to be a complete farce, it was also obvious that the department needed to make some changes, particularly in terms of getting more of the public back on their side and the side of law and order. One big, positive step in that direction was the introduction of body cameras for officers, allowing for the recording of all police interactions with citizens. It’s a policy adopted in cities across the nation and it’s already been providing quantifiable results.

But in Charm City, a few leaders are now pushing to tweak the body cam policies a bit. Actually, it’s significantly more than a tweak. They’re asking to recognize “privacy rights” in terms of the footage recorded and make it significantly more difficult for such video evidence to be released to the public. (Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore County’s top prosecutor and two members of the County Council want state lawmakers to consider tightening rules that govern public access to police body camera footage. They say they’re concerned about the potential for invasions of privacy.

A resolution before the County Council would urge the General Assembly to consider statewide legislation that would “carefully regulate” when the public can view such footage, “without trampling upon the overarching goal of transparency” in police-community relations.

“This is simply about a layer of protection for innocent victims and bystanders for their privacy,” said Councilman Todd Crandell of Dundalk, who is sponsoring the measure with Councilman Wade Kach of Cockeysville. Both are Republicans.

Of course it had to be two of the few Republicans in elected office there pushing for this. Come on, guys. Give us a break.

These suggested changes pretty much undo the best features of having police body cams in the first place. Not only can collected footage be used at trial for more successful prosecutions, but capturing the actions of the police during disputed encounters with civilians serves two important purposes. In the exceedingly rare instances where a bad cop is found who is abusing their authority it makes it easier to get them off the force and held accountable, increasing the public’s confidence in the system’s ability to self-regulate. And in all of the other cases where police are acting responsibly in dangerous situations, it can make that immediately clear and tamp down the instinctive reaction of activists to begin protesting every lethal force encounter the police have with suspects.

The argument being put forward here isn’t quite as bad as I’d initially feared. When I heard about “privacy protection” I was worried they meant the privacy of the police. That would simply have been an insane argument. When the police are out on patrol in public and performing their duties they are working for the people, so citizens have the right to know what they are up to. Privacy isn’t an issue here.

Instead, these members of the City Council seem to be arguing that body cams can capture the images and activities of both crime victims and innocent bystanders, leading to their being featured on the evening news. In the vast majority of cases this is a weak argument at best. Most police encounters take place out of doors in the public square. Everyone’s expectation of privacy decreases significantly once they step outside their door and if you happen to be in the vicinity of police activity out on the street your risk of being “exposed” is minimal since anyone can see you already.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made if the recording is made inside of a suspect’s house or even inside of a private business establishment. But if that’s the case, recorded individuals could have their images blurred out by the police once they had been cleared of any involvement in illegal activity and before the footage is released to the media. Couldn’t this be handled on a case by case basis under existing law?

The bottom line here is that the optics of this are horrible. Even if the intent of the legislators and the prosecutor pushing for this change is noble, the public is going to see it as an attempt to keep the activities of the police in the shadows and away from the prying eyes of the public. That undermines one of the key goals of having body cams in the first place. If any change to current policy is needed, surely there’s a better way than this.