In View: Addressing Police Accountability With BWCs and Victims Privacy

Protocols to Increase Police Accountability and Address Victim Concerns 

Mai Fernandez, Executive Director of the National Center for Victims of Crime

Although body-worn cameras (BWCs) can increase police accountability, they also can encroach on victim privacy and interfere with confidential communications. BWCs record sensitive information, the public release of which could be emotionally devastating and/or dangerous to a victim. The goal of every police department is to develop BWC policies and procedures that protect a victim’s right to privacy and confidentiality, limit the number of individuals that can review the recording, and limit an officer’s ability to manipulate a recording for self-serving reasons.

To promote the greatest accountability, police usually activate their cameras when responding to a call for service.  Concerns arise when an officer enters an individual’s home, where there is a higher expectation of privacy.  Officers may also be confronted with a plethora of embarrassing situations (for example, a partially clothed victim). A recording may capture victim statements that the victim may not wish to be memorialized. BWCs also inadvertently capture images of children, who should not be on camera, or of bystanders who do not wish to be recorded.  

Officers wearing a BWC frequently arrive on a scene where a counselor is speaking to a victim or where emergency medical technicians are treating victims and asking health-related questions.  These statements and images are often privileged and should not be recorded without the parties’ consent.  If BWC video falls into the hands of a bad actor who chooses to upload the recordings to the internet, a victim’s most vulnerable moments could be broadcast to the public. Additionally, for due process reasons, defendants may have a right to view BWC recordings pertinent to their cases, potentially posing a threat to victim safety.

Given the frequency of situations in which recording may threaten victim privacy or safety, when should an officer turn his or her camera off?  Additionally, what individuals, and under what circumstances, should have access to BWC recordings? Developing police department protocols to address these questions is difficult. There may be significant tension among officer accountability objectives, evidentiary benefits of BWCs, and victim concerns. The appropriate balance among these critically important issues can be reached only by understanding the technology’s capabilities; scrutinizing applicable state and federal laws; and reviewing and revising internal policies on video viewing, redaction, retention, and chain of custody procedures.

Police departments need to develop these procedures with the assistance of victim advocates, health care providers, prosecutors, judges, and public defenders.  Without this kind of stakeholder input, the procedures will be subject to much criticism and could be found to be inappropriate, insensitive, and unlawful.  Police departments should invest resources in convening a committee that will regularly review the policies and protocols and make amendments as the technology changes and officer and community understanding of BWCs grows. 

Mai Fernandez is executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a position she has held since June 2010. With a distinguished 25-year career in the criminal justice, nonprofit, and policy arenas, Mai Fernandez has spent the last 13 years managing programs that serve victims of child abuse, sex trafficking, and gang violence. 

This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.