Last week we submitted testimony against one of the bills that others within the police accountability movement support — SB482, concerning the use of police body cameras. Senator Raskin’s office graciously distributed it to the Judicial Proceedings Committee before hearings on the topic.
Here is that testimony:
…concerning this legislation:
Testimony for SB482 by ACLU-MD and Safe Silver Spring
Two statements for SB482 were made by the ACLU of Maryland and the local anti-crime advocacy group Safe Silver Spring. The Safe Silver Spring statement explains the group’s position: “We strongly support this bill because police body cameras will enhance the safety of the public by accurately recording the interactions of police officers with citizens, provide additional evidence and be a training tool.”
For its part, the ACLU Maryland had a substantial role in drafting the bill and of course supports the result. As noted in our statement, the law has several very good features — especially in creating protocols for activation and deactivation of body cameras, and in prohibiting their use during constitutionally protected activities. The ACLU lifts those out. But it seems to us their analysis is largely confined to the details of body camera operation in the field, and their testimony concludes with the claim that with SB482, Maryland legislators’ work in preventing routine surveillance is done:
…the challenge of body-worn cameras is the conflict between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit when it comes to police accountability. Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within an appropriate policy framework that ensures they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks. SB 482 lays out the correct balance in all of these instances.
The conversation continues
From license plate readers to surveillance cameras, few law enforcement systems today operate in isolation from wider state and federal networks. Body cameras could well become the latest example; we believe this law does not prevent or mitigate that possibility, and may contain loopholes encouraging it.
Are we in danger of accepting a technology simply because it seems inevitable? When even closeup videos of deaths like Eric Garner’s result in no conviction or even indictment, is it really eyewitness footage that is lacking? Or is the system itself overly protective of police officers, even when they kill a man for nothing more than illegal cigarette sales? As we note in the testimony and in our previous body cam post, there are many counterexamples to the notion that body cams necessarily end or even reduce unjustified police violence.
We return to the ideas that it is civilian control of police forces that is lacking, that police protocols themselves must change to emphasize “responsibility to retreat” whenever possible, and that there should be fewer laws (e.g. marijuana-related ones) and policies that lead to potentially violent police interventions in the first place. That way, fewer police encounters with citizens, especially black citizens, would end in homicide — hopefully none at all.
We raised our objections reluctantly. We stand by fellow Maryland Coalition for Justice and Equality (MCJE) activists in seeking LEOBOR reform, an end to racial profiling, and state prosecutors for police-involved deaths and violence. But this was the appropriate time and place to raise our concerns about body cameras.
As noted in our first post on the subject, there are many sincere body camera supporters and regulators, starting with the Michael Brown family and legal team, and including leaders in the police accountability MCJE coalition. (We note that there are also body camera skeptics in the African American activist community.) We of course don’t doubt for a moment that ACLU Maryland, Safe Silver Spring, or co-sponsors of this bill like Senator Raskin or Delegate Moon are among them. Reasonable people can differ.
In our town hall on Friday, Delegate Moon said he suspected body cam legislation would be a “multiyear conversation.” We hope so, and strongly encourage readers of this post to consider the SB428 legislation and all three of the SB428 testimonies and related materials we’ve linked to. None of us are lawyers, technical experts, or politicians. We may learn that some of our objections are misplaced, or that changes we’d like to see are politically unattainable at this time. We still believe that this discussion is necessary and important.