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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Body Cameras Off In D.C. During Inauguration

Why Are DC Police Keeping

 Their Body Cameras Off During

 Inauguration and the Women’s

 March?

A lot of social media activity has come to our attention questioning why the DC police have been instructed NOT to turn their body cameras on during the president’s inauguration and the following day’s “Million Women March.” Many people seem puzzled by this.
“ACLU Demands That Body Cams Are Turned Off During Inauguration While They Intend To Record Police” proclaims the headline of one widely circulated post, on a site called “Law Officer” (and seemingly based upon this local story by the NBC DC affiliate).
It’s not an ACLU “demand,” it’s actually DC law. True, the ACLU of DC supported and encouraged adoption of that law, but the wider District of Columbia community as represented by its city council agreed with us. And that law is not absolute; in its full form it says that:
MPD officers may record First Amendment

assemblies for the purpose of documenting

violations of law and police actions, as an aid to

future coordination and deployment of law

enforcement units, and for training purposes;

provided, that recording First Amendment

assemblies shall not be conducted for the

purpose of identifying and recording the

presence of individual participants who are

not engaged in unlawful conduct.
We supported that law for very good reasons. There is a 
long history of law enforcement compiling dossiers on 
peaceful activists exercising their First Amendment rights
 in public marches and protests, and using cameras to send
 an intimidating message to such protesters: “we are 
WATCHING YOU and will REMEMBER your presence at 
this event.” For a vivid picture of how photography can create
 chilling effects, recall the civil rights march from Selma to 
Montgomery Alabama in 1965, when Alabama state troopers 
viciously attacked and beat peaceful protesters. Then take a
 look at this ominous photograph, which was taken after 
thousands of federal troops were finally sent to protect the 
marchers:
Trooper filming 1965 Selma march
Trooper filming Selma march, 1965. Photo by Alfred M
. Loeb; used by permission. 
There’s also a long history of such information being used in
 abusive ways against Americans peacefully agitating for a 
better society.
The purpose of body cameras is to serve as a check and 
balance on the enormous power that society confers on
 police officers, including the power to use brutal or even
 deadly force in some circumstances—a power that we all 
now know has unfortunately been abused all too often. The
 purpose of body cameras is NOT to serve as an intelligence 
gathering tool helping police collect information on people
 exercising their rights. Even if intel gathering were not the 
intent at the time that video was collected, there would 
remain the possibility that police at some later date would be
 tempted to run face recognition on that footage, or use it for
 other, nebulous “intelligence” purposes (a word that in the 
police context is directly connected to a long history of
 surveillance and other abuses). There are serious concerns 
in many communities that, instead of being a tool for much-
needed oversight over police officers, body cameras will 
become just another surveillance device.
Such concerns are why the ACLU recommends (including 
in our model legislation) that police department adopt a
 policy against the taking of video of people who are merely
 exercising their First Amendment rights.
Of course, none of this means that the police cannot turn on
 their cameras during the inauguration or march if something
goes down. The policy of the DC police, like most, stipulates
 that officers are to turn their cameras when engaged in “police 
actions” such as calls for service, pursuits, searches, stops, etc.
 Thus, if a fight breaks out, or some larger disturbance, the 
cameras would go on.
Many of the articles and posts covering this issue point out
 that the ACLU also supports and encourages the filming of
 police by citizens through our Mobile Justice app, including
 the DC version thereof—and suggest this is a contradiction
. A typical post, for example, says, “This one seems a bit 
hypocritical to us. The ACLU... are pushing a mobile app
 encouraging people to record the police... while not
 wanting to be recorded themselves.”
But this isn’t hypocritical at all. As we’ve said many times,
 there is no reason for the government to be filming or
 otherwise monitoring its citizens absent suspicion of
wrongdoing—but it absolutely is the people’s right to
monitor their government, including police officers, and
 how they are doing their jobs. Citizens should be watching
their government—but not vice-versa.