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Understanding police body camera laws by state

Close-up of a uniformed police officer activating an Axon Body 4 body-worn camera.

Learn about the breadth of body-worn camera policies affecting local and state law enforcement

Body-worn cameras are a powerful tool for capturing truth and securing justice. That power makes them a carefully monitored area of modern police technology as it relates to civil rights – and their relatively recent adoption means legislation surrounding body-worn cameras hasn’t yet reached the same level of national consistency as many other common police tools. That’s why it’s essential to understand the difference between body camera laws by state.

Legislation around body-worn camera policy for public safety agencies is constantly evolving. Public safety officials and anyone interested in how justice is done across the United States can be better equipped to make the best possible use of body-worn cameras by understanding the nuances of statewide statutes across different types of use.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this post is for informational purposes only, and is not a statement of law. This information is not intended to provide legal advice and should not be interpreted as such. Readers should always confer with an attorney to obtain legal advice and consult with local, state, and federal ordinances and laws in their applicable jurisdiction.

What is the difference in body camera laws by state for police?

The differences in body camera laws by state for police reflect many of the same legal intricacies present in other areas of policing. While, for example, the federal government’s Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) has implemented its own body-worn camera policies, they apply only to OIG agents, rather than all officials involved in carrying out justice across the country. State regulations largely determine how officers must carry out their daily duties.

In turn, numerous factors shape these state-level regulations: familiarity with the technology, concerns regarding privacy, and the balance of ensuring accountability versus preserving privacy, to name a few. These factors have resulted in a mosaic of state-wide body-worn camera policies that uniquely govern where, how, and when this technology may be used.

Here are three important areas where these policies commonly differ.

Requirement of body-worn camera use for law enforcement

Though 47% of general-purpose law enforcement agencies had acquired body-worn cameras as far back as 2016, laws specifically requiring their use are still far from universal across the US. Here are a few examples of the difference between current body camera laws by state:

  • Colorado’s Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act, which goes into effect on July 1, 2023, mandates “all local law enforcement agencies and the Colorado state patrol to issue body-worn cameras to their officers” with some minor exceptions.

  • Michigan doesn’t mandate that law enforcement agencies use body-worn cameras, but since 2018 it has required any that do to “develop a written policy” regarding their use. A bill requiring body-worn camera use by certain law enforcement officers was introduced to the State House of Representatives in June 2021 but has not yet been voted on.

  • The body-worn camera policies of the state of Washington do not explicitly require the use of cameras by law enforcement or corrections agencies. However, cities and towns are “strongly encouraged” to adopt ordinances or resolutions authorizing their use with community input.

When body-worn cameras may or may not be used

Laws vary regarding when any kind of recording device may be used, with rulings depending on whether the recording is in public, whether the subjects are aware they’re being recorded, whether the recorder is interacting with the subjects or merely observing and beyond. These regulations affect body-worn camera policies, while some states make additional recommendations or requirements.

  • Colorado’s Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity Act stipulates that officers must activate their body-worn cameras when responding to calls for service or “during any interaction with the public initiated by the peace officer when enforcing the law or investigating possible violations of the law.” However, officers may deactivate the cameras to avoid recording personal information not related to the case or when there is “a long break in the incident.” The act also excludes undercover officers from the requirement.

  • Idaho prohibits recording the “oral communication” of a person who, within reason, does not expect their communication to be intercepted or recorded. For example, if an officer is speaking to a bystander while wearing an active body-worn camera, that bystander may be able to object to the recording if they can show they were not aware of the camera.

  • New York state police are required to wear body-worn cameras at all times while on patrol and must record (among other stipulations):

    • Whenever officers exit their patrol vehicle to “interact with a person or situation.”

    • Any uses of force.

    • All searches of persons and property.

Retention and distribution of body-worn camera recordings

Determining how long to retain body-worn camera recordings and to whom they should be accessible is just as important as regulating how those recordings are made in the first place. Here are three illustrative examples of retention and sharing body camera laws by state:

  • Colorado’s act notes that “all recordings of an incident be released to the public within 21 days after the local law enforcement agency or Colorado state patrol receives a complaint of misconduct.” However, the act allows for recordings to be redacted or withheld from public release in case of a specified privacy interest.

  • Minnesota law requires law enforcement to retain all body-worn camera footage for at least 90 days. The requirement expands to a full year for any recordings that document the use of force by an officer resulting in “substantial body harm,” or any incident for which a formal complaint is made against an involved officer.

  • California requires recordings that aren’t being used as evidence to be retained for a minimum of 60 days, though agencies may keep them for longer “in case of a civilian complaint and to preserve transparency.” Recordings used for evidence that include use of force, incidents that lead to detention or arrest and recordings relevant to formal or informal complaints must be retained for at least two years.

How to ensure your body-worn camera policy abides by state law

Ultimately, each law enforcement agency is responsible for ensuring compliance with all relevant body-worn camera policies. The offices of local representatives, as well as state and national legislators, can connect you with helpful resources to answer questions regarding current law and any upcoming changes, while criminal justice attorneys can help parse statutes into relevant legal advice informed by case law. These methods help law enforcement officials and concerned citizens alike know their legal rights and obligations regarding body cameras.

It is also important to remember that your agency’s policies are not limited to merely meeting state requirements. For a variety of reasons, you may choose to enact policies that require officers to use BWC in more situations, to keep footage for longer, or to spend time performing tasks like tagging the evidence. Ultimately, it is up to you and your agency to enact the best policies for your community.

Another proactive way to pursue compliance with body camera laws by state is to ensure your law enforcement agency uses modern tools built for the task. The right body-worn camera can help officers stand ready to capture mandated events, while seamless integration with digital evidence management software makes it easier to ensure recordings are accessible to all appropriate parties and are retained precisely as long as they should be.

Axon Body 4 is the best body-worn camera for law enforcement agencies. Its full-shift battery helps prevent important incidents from going uncaptured, and its improved camera and optional POV accessory capture the details most relevant to a case. Its deep integration with Axon Evidence makes it easy to automatically upload, tag, and set storage parameters based on your agency's policies. It also enables officers, detectives and attorneys alike to securely view and share evidence.

If you’d like to find out more about how Axon Body 4 can help your law enforcement agency capture every moment, speak directly with an Axon Body 4 professional today.