MS ACLU calls for statewide policy for police body-worn cameras

MS ACLU calls for statewide policy for police body-worn cameras
The report detailed a lack of uniformity across state agencies and policies that lack basic privacy safeguards and bare-minimum accountability provisions. (Photo source: ACLU of Mississippi)

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi released a detailed analysis of 65 Mississippi law enforcement agencies' use of body-worn cameras and called for a statewide policy to standardize the use of cameras after discrepancies were found.

The report, released Monday, detailed a lack of uniformity across state agencies and policies that lack basic privacy safeguards and bare-minimum accountability provisions. Also, no policy explicitly provides that video from officer-involved shootings be released to the public, according to the report.

"For body cameras to promote trust between police and the community, police must use them in a way that carefully balances interests in police accountability, government transparency and privacy,"  said Blake Feldman, ACLU of MS Criminal Justice Reform Advocacy Coordinator, and primary researcher and author of the report. "In the policies we analyzed, we found inconsistent implementation guidance, a lack of privacy safeguards, and bare minimum accountability provisions."

According to the report, of the 65 agencies reviewed,  zero require individuals to be notified that they are being recorded, less than 20 percent require officers to deactivate the camera in a private home if requested by the resident, no policies provide protection for victims of domestic violence and most allow the use of cameras in school settings.

"Used properly, body-worn video cameras can help deter police misconduct and uses of force, provide evidence to hold officers accountable when misconduct does occur as well as exonerate wrongly accused officers, and help the public understand how police operate," said Jennifer Riley Collins, ACLU of Mississippi Executive Director. "The lack of uniformity across the state makes it clear that the state must establish certain minimum criteria for policies governing the use of BWCs by agencies choosing to deploy them."

Of the 65 agencies in the report, four are in the Pine Belt:  Jasper County Sheriff's, Waynesboro, Hattiesburg and Laurel Police Departments.

Captain Tommy Cox with the Laurel Police Department said all officers on duty wear body cameras and activate them when they are called for an incident or public service.

"It's great back up, in this day and age, whether we like it or not, everyone wants video," Cox said.  "It's hard to refute something when you're on camera."

The same policy goes for the Jasper County Sheriff's Department and 120 cameras used in the Hattiesburg Police Department.

"The purchase and implementation of body cameras was approved in 2016 and has been welcome in our department," said HPD Lt. Latosha Myers.

The ACLU found there are no policies that require officers to tell individuals they are being recorded.  But, Mississippi is a one party state, meaning officers are not obligated to inform persons they are being recorded or cease recording upon demand or request.

"It's not a secret we wear body cameras, we've publicized it," said Cox.  "They are right on the front of the shirt, so it's hard to miss."

The survey also found just three percent of policies prohibit law enforcement from recording apparent victims.  In HPD's body-worn camera policy attached to the ACLU's report, it states:

"Discretion and good judgement should be used when interviewing victims of sexual battery (adult and juvenile) or child abuse cases.  A better course of action may be to record audio only.  In any case, the request by the victim to not be videoed or circumstance of the interview should be fully documented in the report and declared on the recording prior to deactivation."

"This type of policy goes a long way, for being a resource in documentation and transparency," Myers said.

The ACLU found 40 percent of the policies give special right to officers to view footage before completing a report, that includes HPD and Laurel.  The Waynesboro Police Department policy states officers can not edit, erase or share recordings without prior authorization and approval from the Chief of Police.

"They don't have access to delete or burn it or anything, they can tag it," Cox said.

The ACLU provided a model policy in the report for balancing police accountability and privacy protection.

You can view the full report below or view the specific policies of agencies reviewed in the report here.