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Report examines best practices for officer body cameras

Grand Forks (N.D.) County Sheriff's Deputy Ryan Thompson slides his body camera into it's vest carrier. Jesse Trelstad / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — As body cameras become standard for law enforcement agencies nationwide, policies regarding how and when officers use them remain varied.

A new report published Wednesday by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers aims to set standards that protect the rights of the accused and set best practices for camera use by law enforcement.

The 2014 police shooting of 18-year-old black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., drew body cameras into the national conversation, and many viewed the cameras as a panacea: Citizens had a safeguard against overzealous policing; police had protection from faulty abuse claims.

University of North Dakota School of Law professor Steven Morrison and other defense lawyers realized the issue was not so simple, and shortly afterward the NACDL decided to commission a report on using body cameras in the most ethical and legal manner. Morrison was the co-chair of the task force that assembled the report.

"From the get-go we realized that this would be a very complicated issue," Morrison said. "But as we dived into it, we realized we would need to get the opinions of a number of different interest groups and incorporate those different viewpoints."

The NACDL interviewed police leaders, prosecutors, civil rights groups, defense lawyers and politicians to find the best way to make a policy that would make body cameras beneficial to those accused of crimes as well as innocent bystanders and law enforcement.

"Everybody has an interest in making the right call, in getting the truth out there," Morrison said. "Whether it's a police officer engaging in abuse — we all have an interest in uncovering that. Or whether it's a citizen who's filing a false claim against an officer — we all have an interest in vindicating that officer."

Both the Grand Forks Police Department and the Grand Forks Sheriff's Office equip patrol officers with body cameras. The police have been using the cameras since 2014. Sheriff's deputies began using them in October. Each department has slightly different guidelines for when to use the devices.

The NACDL report lays out 10 recommendations for instituting a successful body camera policy.

First among the recommendations is that officers be given clear direction on when to record and not leave decisions up to officer discretion.

"Most cops want to do their jobs well, and they really are dedicated and try to do well," Morrison said. "But whenever you give discretion, especially in the criminal justice process, it enables abuse."

In the official policies for both local law enforcement agencies, officers are allowed to review body camera footage when preparing reports, but Morrison said this shouldn't be the case.

"The Task Force's concern is that the officer's memory would be shaded by viewing the video," Morrison said.

The tape, Morrison said, cannot capture the officer's perceptions of an incident and, counterintuitively, might make a report less accurate.

"What we wanted was camera footage that depicted the situation as accurately as possible," he said.

Currently, footage collected via body cameras is kept by departments for various amounts of time, depending on the department and if the footage is tied to a case. But the NACDL is calling for a neutral third party to retain the footage.

"Law enforcement retains custody of evidence, and that's fine, that's perfectly legitimate," Morrison said. "The mass of that body camera footage that is stored is not evidence."

Body camera usage remains in its infancy, and as it advances the NACDL wants to ensure all parties are served by the technology.

"If you do body cameras right, everybody is protected," Morrison said.

Recommendations

The NACDL offered 10 recommendations:

• Clear and strictly enforced policies must establish when body cameras will be recording so that the decision of when to record is not left to the discretion of individual police officers.

• Video must be stored for a sufficient time to allow the accused to obtain evidence that is exculpatory or may lead to the discovery of exculpatory evidence.

• Arrested individuals and their attorneys must be given prompt access to all body camera video pertaining to a case.

• Policies must be crafted and equipment must be designed to minimize concerns with the misinterpretation of video.

• Police officers should not access body camera video before preparing their initial reports.

• Policies must prohibit the use of any biometric technologies in conjunction with body cameras.

• Video must not be later viewed to search for additional crimes or take other punitive action against an individual.

• Adequate resources must be available to ensure ongoing officer training on body camera use.

• Sufficient resources must be available to ensure that counsel are appropriately trained and that appointed counsel have adequate time and access to experts necessary to render effective assistance of counsel.

• An independent, non-police agency must retain and control access to body camera footage.

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