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Police Are Using More Body Cameras, and State Lawmakers Are Trying to Catch Up

How do states reconcile the wearing of body cameras with already-existing laws, like one in Pennsylvania, that prohibit recording inside a citizen's home? When should the camera record, and when should the public have access to footage?
Rick Wilking/Reuters

Hundreds of police departments have adopted the use of body cameras in the wake of controversial officer-involved fatalities, including the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City. But as departments have equipped officers with body cameras, they have also had difficulty crafting policies that lay out how and when those cameras should be used, and how and when the footage they capture should be released to the public.


Nine states currently have legislation specifying when and where body cameras can be used, and another 16 have legislation pending, according to an online analysis of state body-cam policies released on Thursday by the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank that does social and economic policy research. In states where there is no clear-cut legislation, there is confusion.

A Pittsburgh police lieutenant who spoke to the Urban Institute said that one of the most important benefits of the body-camera tool is that it can record interactions in which a police officer enters someone's home, but Pennsylvania law crafted before the advent of the cameras prohibits recording without consent in private. Thirty-six other states have similar laws, requiring police to turn off the cameras before they enter a residence.

"Going into a house is one of the most intrusive things government does," Lt. Ed Trapp said. "Why would that be the one time you'd want to turn the cameras off?"

Related: Reports Suggest Body Cameras Are Only Effective When Cops Can't Turn Them Off

Nancy G. La Vigne, director of the Institute's Justice Policy Center, said they created the tool to show how the current laws governing the use of body-cameras are varied.

"Every state has a different set of statutes. Most, until recently, were silent on the topic of body cameras," she said. "Post-Ferguson there has been more attention to creating more transparency with the public, and the public has in mind these high-profile cases and how body-worn cameras can bring more context to bear on interactions between police and citizens."

Now, she said, states are trying to catch up to the public demand for greater transparency. Police departments are also largely in favor of the cameras, she added, in that it helps reduce officers misbehaving on the job and encourages citizens to follow the law. La Vigne estimated that more than 50 percent of police departments with more than 100 officers now have some body cameras in use. And while the Department of Justice created a tool kit for police departments to craft their policies around, the departments must abide by a wide variety of state laws.

"I think you're going to see nearly every state pass legislation about body camera use," she said. "And then, what I'm most excited about is the more creative technology that can be used with it. If an officer takes a gun out of a holster, say, a camera turns on, or sensing biometrics, so if the pulse rate increases, and there is sweat excretion, or other types of biometrics that signal a fight-or-flight-response, it's probably a good time to turn the camera on."