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Police surveillance cameras: Do they protect the public or invade its privacy?

The shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, has been the headline of the month. It has become a defining moment in the relationship between police and minority communities in this country. The accounts of witnesses differ greatly depending on their allegiance to the victim or police officer. No clear version of events has emerged, and in the absence of that, the tinderbox of emotions exploded into eleven days of riots. A grand jury has been convened to determine whether to indict the police officer, and the Department of Justice is investigating possible Civil Rights violations. Both of these inquiries will take a very long time given the conflicting testimonies of witnesses and the amount of evidence that is being compiled (e.g. three autopsies to date).

Could much or all of the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown be avoided by the use of readily available technology? Your Denver personal injury attorney notes that dashboard cameras on police cars have been in use since the 1980s when the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) campaign made traffic stops for drunk driving more common–and more controversial. Initially reluctant to be videotaped just “doing their job,” police soon realized the value of being able to back up their version of events during a traffic stop, a stop, and frisk, or an arrest. In the 1990s, the war on drugs and the allegations of racial profiling with respect to stop and frisks made dash cameras even more necessary for traffic stops. By 2007, 61 percent of local police departments were using video cameras in patrol cars, up from 55 percent in 2003.

The use of body cameras, or body cams, has been gaining in popularity. Dashboard cameras, or dashcams, have a limited view and no sound unless a headset is worn. Body cams are typically worn on an officer’s lapel or pocket, and can, therefore, record the entire interaction between the officer and citizen. Your Denver personal injury attorney points out that this capability has led some to question whether law enforcement acts differently when wearing body cams; does a camera change how they handle a situation or when they decide to use force? In a survey of twenty-one law enforcement agencies across the country, 86 percent of police officers said the body cam had no bearing on how they handled a situation, and 89 percent said it had no effect on their decision to use force in a situation. Interestingly, the study showed that the use of cameras does have an effect on the behavior of both police and citizens, promoting professionalism in the former and calm in the latter when the use of the camera is known.

The use of body cameras by police is currently being tested and implemented all over the U.S. Concerns over privacy have arisen surrounding the recording of drunk driving stops of celebrities and/or elected officials and the later release of these recordings to the public. If all police interactions with the public are recorded, then the potential for the abuse of what should be private material exists. The questions of who reviews the recordings, who has a right to copies of them, and how they are stored or disposed of are important issues. As your Denver personal injury attorney knows, if you have been stopped on suspicion of drunk driving, you need access to any recording of the interaction with police, and you need the recording to remain private. You also have a right to know if the recording has been altered in any way since editing can distort the true version of events.

If you have been involved in an accident or confrontation with the police, contact Jordan Levine at The Levine Law Firm to talk about your legal rights. 

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