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March 16, 2014

Officers’ body cameras raise privacy concerns

LOS ANGELES — Officers at thousands of law enforcement agencies are wearing tiny cameras to record their interactions with the public, but in many cases the devices are being rolled out faster than departments are able to create policies to govern their use.

And some rank-and-file officers are worried the technology might ultimately be used to derail their careers if, for example, an errant comment about a superior is captured on tape.

Most law enforcement leaders and civil liberties advocates believe the cameras will ultimately help officers because the devices give them a way to record events from their point of view at a time when citizens armed with cellphones are actively scrutinizing their every move.

They say, however, that the lack of clear guidelines on the cameras’ use could potentially undermine departments’ goals of creating greater accountability of officers and jeopardize the privacy of both the public and law enforcement officers.

“This is a brave new world that we’re entering here, where citizens and police both are going to be filming each other,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit police research and policy organization.

The U.S. Justice Department has asked Wexler’s group to help develop guidelines for the cameras’ use, from when the devices should be turned on to how departments can protect the privacy of those who are inadvertently captured on the footage.

Equipping police with cameras isn’t a new concept. For decades police have used cameras mounted to the dashboards of their patrol cars — initially referred to with suspicion by officers as “indict-o-cams” until they discovered the footage exonerated them in most cases.

As camera technology and data storage has become more affordable and reliable, the use of portable cameras has increased over the last five years. Now officers in one of every six departments are patrolling with them on their chests, lapels or sunglasses, according to Scott Greenwood, general counsel for the national American Civil Liberties Union and an expert on the cameras.

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