Image courtesy of the ACLU

ITHACA, N.Y. — If a police officer in Tompkins County gets called to someone’s home while wearing a body camera, under what circumstances should he or she turn the camera off?

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If the officer doesn’t turn the camera off, and it winds up capturing a moment that isn’t criminal but is personally embarrassing, should that video be stored? Could keeping it — or even making the recording itself — risk violating a citizen’s privacy?

This was one of the potential problems with new body cameras that surfaced at the public safety committee of the Tompkins County Legislature on Monday.

County legislators took turns asking Sheriff Ken Lansing and Undersheriff Brian Robison about various issues surrounding the body cameras, which are expected to be worn soon by cops in both the sheriff’s department and the Ithaca Police Department.

Image courtesy of the ACLU

The cameras enjoy broad support from both officers and community leaders, who maintain that they’ll increase transparency and trust by providing a record of police-civilian interactions.

But privacy has also emerged as a potential concern with officers taking nearly constant video — both in Ithaca and elsewhere. A CNN story published in May said that national civil liberties groups are increasingly calling on policymakers “to consider the risks of over-surveillance” that could come with the cameras’ proliferation.

See related: Growing use of police body cameras raises privacy concerns

“Equipping police with such devices also raises new and unsettled issues over privacy at a time when many Americans have been critical of the kind of powerful government surveillance measures that technology has made possible,” writes the L.A. Times.

The L.A. Times story continues:

Such video “sometimes captures people at the worst moments of their lives,” American Civil Liberties Union senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said.

“You don’t want to see videos of that uploaded to the Internet for titillation and gawking,” he said.

Video from dashboard cameras in police cars, a more widely used technology, has long been exploited for entertainment purposes. Internet users have posted dash-cam videos of arrests of naked women to YouTube, and TMZ sometimes obtains police videos of athletes and celebrities during minor or embarrassing traffic stops, turning officers into unwitting paparazzi.

Officers wearing body cameras could extend that public eye into living rooms or bedrooms, should a call require them to enter a private home.

Undersheriff Robison addressed the issue in the legislature chambers on Monday.

“You certainly have to use our best judgment,” Robison said of how officers and deputies should handle the cameras. “Mom’s sitting there scantily dressed or something, common sense would tell you shut it off. That will be certainly be part of the training — when to and when not to (use the cameras).”

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Body cameras coming for Ithaca cops.”
Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Body cameras coming for Ithaca cops.”

In response to a question from County Legislator Will Burbank, Undersheriff Robison also said that the officers will likely disclose that suspects are being recorded.

“Every member of the public would assume they’re being videotaped,” Robison said. “It’s just the age we’re in: If someone says, ‘Am I being videotaped … (the officer will say), ‘Yeah, you are.’”

Robison also suggested that the context would be key. “Are you there because they called you and invited you there or are you there because you’re in pursuit of some sort of perpetrator?,” he said.

In general, it’s important to also remember that the camera footage will be treated as evidence — meaning that, like all police evidence, it will be subject to redactions and deletions if certain information requested meets the exemptions. Legislator Jim Dennis also noted that our current culture increasingly assumes that recording it either possible or could happen at any point, and that these changing norms would probably change the behavior of both suspects and law enforcement — for the better.

The county lawmakers reviewed the draft of a “general order” from the sheriff’s office governing the use of the cameras. The policy rules identify at least four reasons that the officers may use their discretion to stop recording, which would otherwise be recording constantly during their shifts:

1 — When interviewing a victim where the victim’s privacy may be at issue, “including but not limited to victims of rape and domestic abuse, or where the victim is non- or partially-clothed.”

2 — Interviewing a witness who fears retaliation for cooperating with police, or refuses to cooperate unless the camera is turned off.

3 — Conducting investigative interviews with Confidential Informants.

4 — “The officer has completed his or her engagement with each subject at the scene, at least on an interim basis, and exited the vicinity of each subject.”

You can read the full policy here.

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.