Body Cameras and Privacy Concerns


The use of body cameras raises concerns about privacy. (WHO-HD)

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DES MOINES, Iowa  --  With more body cameras on the streets, there are more questions about when police officers should be recording and who should have access to the video.

For instance, when questions were raised about a deadly shooting in Urbandale last year, body camera video was used to prove the officers were justified in shooting Ali Yahia.

But body camera video of a deadly 2015 shooting in Burlington has not been released in its entirety and is now the focus of a lawsuit. The Burlington Police Department and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation argue the video--which shows Officer Jesse Hill accidentally shooting Autumn Steele--is part of the investigative record, and according to Iowa's Open Records Law should remain sealed, even though the case is closed.

Steele's family disagrees and has filed a complaint with the Iowa Public Information Board. Its attorney says the law doesn't apply, because it does not specifically address body cameras.

"These issues are popping up all over the country and raising very important public policy concerns that the legislature really should address," says Kathleen Richardson, Dean of Drake University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Richards has spent most of her professional life arguing for transparency and accountability, but she acknowledges body cameras create a slew of new questions concerning privacy, including the privacy of offenders, victims of crime, police, and everyone in between.

"Everything that a police officer would be exposed to in the course of his or her work could be potentially captured on his or her body camera," says Richardson. "It could be somebody responding to a rape allegation, a domestic dispute, maybe in the middle of the night, crying babies, distraught people, half-dressed people."

And as the law currently stands, if the video isn't sealed, anyone can access it.

"And that puts us in a scary scenario," says Erica Johnson, Advocacy Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa.

Even if a police department has a policy surrounding the use of its body cameras, it means little without a law in place to back it up.

"The way the Open Records Law has been drafted so far, is not necessarily with an eye towards body cameras and the privacy implications that those could raise for folks," says Johnson.

The ACLU of Iowa has presented the Iowa Legislature with recommendations for changing Iowa's Open Records Law, but lawmakers have failed to act two years in a row.  Those recommendations include uniform guidelines for recording in homes, who has access to the video, the retention of the video, and how the video is used.

Johnson hopes the legislature will act this year.

"We would really like to see some sort of action, some sort of discussion moving forward."

As it stands right now, a committee is still studying the issue, even as the cameras are already rolling.


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