- The Washington Times
Wednesday, November 27, 2019

A Justice Department pilot program allowing local police officers serving on federal task forces to wear body cameras has earned mixed responses from metropolitan police chiefs.

Some hail the program as a victory for transparency and accountability, while others worry the federal government will keep a tight hold on the body camera footage.

Current Justice Department rules ban federal agents from wearing body cameras, a small recording device that attaches to an officer’s uniform and captures audio and video of their interactions with the public.

Local police officers partnering with federal agencies on joint operations also are barred from wearing body cameras.

The policy is under review, though. The Justice Department this year started a pilot program allowing local officers partnering with federal agencies to wear body cameras.

The pilot program, which is set for 90 days but could go longer, is in effect in six large and midsize cities. It includes thousands of local officers across the country who partner with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Marshals, and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo called the potential policy change “an absolute win.” But he recognized his colleagues’ concerns.

“There are aspects to this policy that won’t work for most of my colleagues at this point,” he told The Washington Times. “I am fairly confident, given how quickly Attorney General [William] Barr has moved on this issue, we will be able to get this worked out in the short run.”

Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields remained unconvinced. In May, she pulled 25 officers out of federal task forces because they were not allowed to wear body cameras.

Despite the pilot program, she still has not allowed her officers to return because the federal agencies will decide when the footage is released and how much the public gets to see.

Ms. Shields isn’t the only big-city chief who has removed local offices from joint operations with the federal government. St. Paul, Minnesota, Chief Todd Axtell pulled his officers after federal agencies rebuffed his demand for body cameras.

The pilot program is expected to address issues surrounding the use of body cameras, including how to use the camera while protecting the identity of undercover officers and sources; when the cameras should be on; and how the footage should be used as evidence in cases.

Some involved in the program say it is too soon to answer those questions. But they are confident the program will be a success.

Greg Wilking, a spokesman for the Salt Lake City Police Department, said his department sees the program’s benefits.

“We’ve found as a department the cameras have been very beneficial. If guys on the task forces can have them and use them, all the better. We are not going to go tell a federal agency how to do things,” he said.

Mr. Acevedo agreed.

“We will achieve mutual accountability for suspects and for our officers. It helps build trust and protects officers from allegations of excessive force and inappropriate police conduct,” said the Houston police chief.

But the program isn’t perfect, he noted. He declined to discuss the deficiencies because the policy change hasn’t been finalized and could still be changed.

“We have already identified some pieces that won’t work in the long run,” he said. “But being able to address those challenges will help ultimately draft a policy that works for local, state and federal partners.”

Top officials at the federal level agree that some kinks will need to be worked out.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police last month, conceded there is more work to be done.

“We want to make sure that we find some middle ground that we’re all comfortable with,” Mr. Wray said. “The good news is we’re talking about it. We’re getting it all out on the table, and I’m actually confident we are going to find a way forward here.”

One of the biggest issues is whether the local departments or federal agencies control the video from the body cameras. The debate could inflame already strained tensions between the two.

“The major police forces are insisting upon transparency in the footage, while the feds, who are much further removed from the communities, are resisting body cameras,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Stanley said he believes it should be up to each local jurisdiction to decide how body camera footage is regulated and released.

“I think the best case is that the use of body cameras reflects the community’s judgment,” he said. “Crucial technology like this should be up to the local communities, but what we are seeing is these federal law enforcement agencies are trampling on the will of these communities.”

One possible solution would be a public safety exception requiring the release of footage in a deadly force or other encounters.

“I would not want to withhold something in the world of false narratives,” Mr. Acevedo said. “I want to have the ability to put it out when we have a public safety necessity. We need an exception to quell public outrage.”

Regardless, Mr. Acevedo said he hopes both sides can hammer out a solution.

“This is something really important to the American people,” he said. “We have to end up with an agreement that will be palatable and take into consideration all the needs of the different entities.”

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.