Debate Continues on Alameda Body Camera Usage

Alameda is getting body cameras for the police department, but the policy governing usage is vaguer than some observers would like.


Policy on police body cameras is under consideration.

Photo by Chris Duffey

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When an Alameda police officer was accused three years ago of using excessive force that resulted in multiple arm fractures to a mentally ill man, footage from a body camera purchased by the officer eventually helped to disprove allegations that the officer beat the man while he was handcuffed.

At the time, the Alameda Police Department did not deploy body cameras. Yet like many other Bay Area cities, Alameda recently entered the world of police body camera operation. The proposed policy governing the practice is vague on some details, however, and falls short of the standards recommended by experts on this emerging legal landscape.

In June, the Alameda City Council unanimously approved a five-year, $424,000 contract to purchase 80 Axon police cameras from Taser International, a leading manufacturer in the growing surveillance industry. The high-definition cameras themselves are relatively cheap, but the cost of digital video storage remains high.

Police departments typically posit that body cameras represent the dual potential of showing what alleged suspects are doing while documenting whether police are following their own rules and policies. But civil rights activists note that police control over when the tape rolls could impart a different context to the actual incident. There also is disagreement over who should be allowed to control and view the footage.

“Before rolling out any surveillance technology, including body cameras, Alameda needs to have an open and robust public process,” said Nicole A. Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “The public expects to know why technology like this is being considered, how it is going to be used, and be assured that robust safeguards are in place to guard against misuse before any decisions are made to move forward with body cameras.”

In a widely cited white paper published in March by her organization, the Northern California ACLU urged against police body camera policies that allow officers to “edit on the fly,” essentially choosing when or if the camera’s play button is pushed during a police action. The best scenario, the ACLU concluded, would be to require cameras to roll for the duration of an officer’s shift.

The organization’s report called on police departments to require their officers to turn on body cameras for each stop, along with strict penalties for those who fail to do so.

But Alameda’s policy gives officers much more latitude than that.

“The Alameda Police Department may provide members with access to portable recorders, either audio, video, or both, for use during the performance of their duties,” the policy states. “Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are issued primarily to uniformed personnel along with personnel assigned to investigations. It is the policy of this department that members should activate the BWC when such use is appropriate to the proper performance of his or her official duties, where the recordings are consistent with this policy and law. The use of recorders is intended to enhance the mission of the Department by accurately capturing contacts between members of the Department and the public.”

In one passage, the draft states devices should be activated “during all enforcement stops and field interrogation situations and any other time the member reasonably believes that a recording of an on-duty contact may be useful.” Elsewhere, however, officers are just “strongly encouraged” to activate cameras.

The ACLU is concerned that Alameda’s proposed policy has few restrictions and merely suggests officers should use the cameras for specified scenarios. Additionally, no clear sanctions are included for officers who do not press their camera’s on button.

A defining feature of the Taser International body cameras, however, is its ability to wind back footage 30 seconds before the officer actually turns it on. Rolleri and other law enforcement agency officials have said this function takes away the self-editing ability from officers.

Rolleri said he is comfortable with the draft as presented.

Enormous responsibility is foisted upon police officers, he noted, along with hundreds of hours of training invested in their success. “I wanted to give the officers discretion, because I genuinely trust them,” he said. “I don’t think we’re in a position where everything needs to get turned on.

“People who are critical of all police are probably going to think, ‘If you’re not recording everything, then you must be hiding something,’” Rolleri said. “I would respectfully disagree with that. If people are predisposed to thinking the cops can’t be trusted, they’re probably going to be disappointed.”

Rolleri said he does not think the policy needs greater accountability for not recording incidents or routine traffic stops. “I don’t want my officers to be going out in the street and worrying about getting in trouble for hitting a button,” Rolleri said, “and not paying attention to what they’re supposed to be doing.”

He said he opposed a firmer policy because “I don’t think most people in any profession operate well under that kind of direction.”

Rolleri said he is open to making changes, based on the body camera’s actual use in the field. Muscle-memory may need to be built up, at least, in the beginning.

“There’s going to be times when they forget to hit the button or thought they hit the button,” he said. “It’s going to happen. I know it’s going to happen.”

During two council meetings on the subject, no one spoke out against the cameras. Councilmember Tony Daysog, who may be the devices’ biggest proponent, has said flatly, “When the chief of police says this is something that is going to protect the public, I’m in with that.”

Another flashpoint in the debate over the efficacy of police body cameras is how the data is stored, for how long, and who will be able to access footage.

At a July meeting, Councilmember Frank Matarrese expressed concern over data storage, specifically over deleting video and releasing video to the public.

“My preference is, whether it’s an accidental recording or not, it stays there until the document is deleted by its mandated expiration,” Matarrese said. Furthermore, Matarrese said he wanted to avoid an incident where footage is accidentally deleted.

Rolleri agreed with Matarrese’s sentiment, but added, “I struggle with that one a little bit” and reiterated the sensitive or potential embarrassing private moments that might be recorded by body cameras, such as an officer accidentally filming other officers changing clothes in the locker room or even an officer using the restroom. Sensitive conversations with public officials are another example, Rolleri said.

With the Taser system, there’s also no ability for an officer to delete footage on his own, Rolleri said. Officers will be required to place the camera in its downloading dock when their shifts are over. The data will be directly stored on Taser’s server, he explained. In addition, a paper trail will exist when officers make written requests for data to be erased followed by approval by two supervisors, including a captain. An audit trail provided by the vendor will also show any changes or deletions made by police personnel.