Iowa is entering a new era of technology in law enforcement. It offers an unprecedented opportunity to promote transparency and accountability, but only if proper rules are in place to govern new tools.
In particular, increasingly prevalent cameras worn by police officers can benefit both police and the public by helping to eliminate uncertainty in cases with disputed facts. However, it’s easy to imagine scenarios where officers don’t turn on their cameras before they act inappropriately, or where government entities withhold footage showing misconduct. That possibility should give us pause.
Agencies small and large across the Iowa are using video cameras to varying degrees, but there are discrepancies in the regulations local governments have put in place to manage their use. At least as important, open government laws have not kept up with the demands of storing and disclosing footage officers capture to the public.
For now, local police departments set their own rules for operating cameras and retaining footage. Several important national organizations have weighed in by publishing recommendations for agencies’ use of body-mounted surveillance devices, including the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Fraternal Order of Police.
In the Iowa City Police Department, every patrol and investigative officer has been equipped with a body camera since 2015. The department has a set of rules for officers, which city staff developed after meeting with the American Civil Liberties Union and reviewing recommendations from several public safety sources.
The policy is largely in line with best practices, and could be a model for other departments’ first drafts. It requires officers to activate their cameras on all calls for service and in all law enforcement encounters with members of the public, including traffic stops, frisks, searches, arrests, interviews and searches.
Officers are not required to inform people they are being recorded — one part of the policy which is out of line with the ACLU’s recommendations — but must disclose it if they’re asked. There are guidelines for officers to file the footage they gather, and the devices do not allow officers to delete or alter videos after they collect.
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Of course, there are some reasonable exceptions to collecting video of some police activities, like during potentially sensitive interviews or in places where citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department is in the process of outfitting all officers with cameras after the City Council approved their purchase last year. Their body cameras policy is less detailed than Iowa City’s, though department leaders expect to update the policy as they gain more experience with the devices.
Neither city’s policy deals with public disclosure of police video footage. Even with strong operational rules in place, it’s concerning when government authorities refuse to release video that’s already been collected and may inform the public’s response to controversial police actions. Departments often hide behind language in the state’s open records law which exempts certain “investigative reports” from public disclosure.
The inadequacy of sunshine laws is demonstrated by the ongoing legal battle spurred by the shooting death of an Iowa woman by a Burlington police officer in 2015. Autumn Steele was mistakenly shot by an officer responding to a domestic dispute.
Steele’s family has disputed the police department’s version of events, but only 12 seconds of the video collected on the officer’s body camera has been released to the public. Advocates still are fighting for the release of the video and other case documents.
The Iowa Legislature has considered this issue a few times in recent years, like a 2015 bill to require all officers to wear body cameras, and a 2018 bill to create a study committee on body camera policies. So far, no statewide policy proposals have gained substantial report.
Ideally, these issues would be left to local governments, which are much more accountable to their constituents than the state or federal governments. Cities and counties must prove they can use surveillance technology responsibly and honor transparency. If they can’t, they are inviting more mandates from the state government.
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