Do Police Body Cameras Leave the Public With Any Privacy Rights?
For several years now, sparked by the shooting by a police officer of an unarmed African American man in Ferguson, Missouri, the public has pushed for police officers to wear body cameras. That public push was followed by widespread efforts by local governments to meet those calls for body cameras, combined with millions of dollars in federal funding to help local agencies pay for body cameras, even though local and federal investigations found that there was no basis to charge the officer involved in the Ferguson incident. Nonetheless, with heightened attention on law officers shooting unarmed suspects, police departments across the country are deploying body cameras on their officers.
There was virtually no research on whether body cameras on police officers actually accomplish the goal of a reduction in the use of inappropriate force and civilian complaints. Still, 34 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws regarding police use of body cameras.
The cameras are simple devices, in essence just small video cameras attached to an officer’s uniform, and officers can turn them on to record what happens during the performance of an officer’s duties. While the jury is out on whether the cameras reduce the use of force, the privacy implications are significant for the countless people who are unwittingly filmed by police body cameras.
Privacy Rights Are a Major Issue With Police Body Cameras
Whether police body cameras are actually effective in reducing police use of force is not at all clear. The District of Columbia, one of the first jurisdictions to require body cameras on all officers, also was one of the first to conduct a study on how well the cameras achieve their goals. That study found no statistically significant evidence that officers with cameras were less likely to use force or experience public complaints.
What is clear, though, is that police body cameras are filming thousands of persons who were not previously being filmed. Furthermore, it is an open question as to whether those people have consented to be filmed. While there is a public interest in making sure police are doing their jobs properly, there likewise is a countervailing public interest in protecting the privacy rights of people who have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The largest newspaper in Illinois has expressed doubt that police won’t use body cameras where people have a high expectation of privacy despite the protections contained in the Illinois statute. The fact is, Illinois law requires that police turn cameras on at all times when an officer is in uniform and responding to calls or performing any law-enforcement duties.
There are exceptions, of course. Officers are supposed to turn their cameras off if a crime victim asks them to do so, or when a witness or confidential informant asks to turn off the camera. Even then, the officer is allowed to continue recording if exigent circumstances make it necessary for the officer to continue recording, although the officer must then state why recording is continuing despite a request to turn the camera off. In other words, the officer can always keep recording in instances involving criminal investigations.
Officers also are allowed to turn off their cameras when performing community relations or caretaking duties, but apparently, are not required to do so. Furthermore, the law requires that officers notify anyone being recorded who has a reasonable expectation of privacy that they are recording them. While the law requires that the recording include proof that such notice was given, it does not require that the officer stop recording.
Even though Illinois law contains redaction requirements and other provisions that exclude body camera footage from Freedom of Information requests, those provisions do not exclude all body camera footage from such requests. In fact, the list of exceptions to that provision is fairly lengthy. Because there are so many situations where police body cameras can capture footage of people who truly have a reasonable expectation of privacy, many civil rights organizations are strongly opposed to the use of police body cameras. They contend that body cameras will subject people to surveillance at levels never before experienced, simply because they are interacting with a police officer in a jurisdiction that requires the use of body cameras.
The Illinois law’s always-on body camera provision relies heavily on the police officer involved to provide proper notice that the camera is recording while also relying heavily upon the officer to turn the camera off when appropriate. Neither event is a given. In fact, it is not clear that either event—notice or disabling the camera—is even likely. In addition to the likelihood that police will record people with an expectation of privacy but without their knowledge or consent, it also is quite likely that police body cams will wind up recording information that the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act would normally protect.
The federal law protects patients from disclosure of private health information without permission. Because police officers frequently are at the scene where people are receiving medical care, the likelihood is high that an officer with a body camera and an always-on requirement will record such protected health information. Unfortunately, law enforcement officers are not included under HIPAA privacy protections.
If a Police Body Camera Filmed You Without Your Permission in DuPage, Kane, or Cook County, Contact the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Martin & Kent, L.L.C.
Illinois state law allows police to use body cameras without your permission in some circumstances. In other circumstances, the use of such cameras is illegal without your permission or knowledge, particularly when you are not the individual being arrested. You need to know your rights if you are filmed by a police body camera without your permission or knowledge. That means you need to call the criminal defense lawyers of Martin & Kent, L.L.C. We know how to protect your rights. For a free consultation in DuPage, Kane, and Cook County, contact them 24 hours a day at (630) 474-8000.