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History of Body-Worn Camera Legislation

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By Esmael Ansari, Director of Government Affairs

The development of body-worn cameras for law enforcement created a new way to collect and manage evidence and provided a clearer avenue of transparency between officers and citizens. However, this new technology initially created a vacuum around how to govern the use of this new tool. Prior to the wide deployment of body cameras, state, county, and municipal governments did not have specific laws or policies to deal with such technology. Many states did have some laws that were applicable to body-worn cameras as it relates to two-party consent or restrictions of recordings where privacy is expected, but these laws were not enacted for dealing with body-worn cameras.

The question became: do these current laws apply to body cameras — and if so, how — or do new laws need to be drafted and enacted to deal with this emerging technology?

Well, the answer to this question is complex and still being debated nationwide. The reason why it is so complex, is because all 50 states, the District of Columbia, large cities, and county governments are each individually forming laws and policies that govern the use and deployment of body-worn cameras. There is no one policy or nationwide law, but varying guidelines based on a web of state, county, or city laws and regulations. These laws and regulations may be drastically different depending on what part of the country you find yourself in.

State and local laws and policies, are living, breathing documents that can stand the test of time or be changed without a moment’s notice.

In general, about 30 states and the District of Columbia have created some type of law regarding body-worn cameras. The initial trend of legislation in 2014 and 2015 mostly focused on authoring government to create commissions or committees to study body-worn cameras or to begin to pilot and evaluate the technology. In many cases, the primary purpose of these commissions was to create recommendations on best practices and policies for a body-worn camera program.

As state and local governments gain more information from studying body-worn cameras, and as their local law enforcement agencies, began to test the technology, a second wave of legislation began. This second wave, in late 2015 and 2016, focused on public access to body-worn cameras footage, creating standard policy requirements, requiring certain type of officers to be equipped with cameras, and creating grant programs to help law enforcement agency procure the technology.

The legislation we are seeing in 2017 is similar to 2016. States are continuing to push for standardization of policy, this time around the balance of keeping police data for evidence and allowing public access to the data for transparency purposes. In addition, we are seeing, in some cases, legislation that would adjust state laws already pertaining to body-worn cameras to allow for easier use of the technology. This comes through trial and error. It is difficult to legislate new technology before seeing it fully deployed and operational for a few years.

State and local laws and policies, are living, breathing documents that can stand the test of time or be changed without a moment’s notice. As body-worn cameras become standard issue over the next few years, and as new hardware and software features are added to body-worn camera programs – new laws and regulations will continue to be promulgated.