High profile incidents of police misconduct have recently generated intense media attention in the United States. Police departments and policy makers throughout the country have begun to use body cameras to create an objective record of interactions with the public. The mere presence of body cameras fundamentally changes the dynamics of law enforcement encounters for both police and the public. By creating an objective visual record, body cameras have the potential to protect the public from police officer misconduct, provide officers a defense to allegations of misconduct, assist in police training and help prosecutors secure convictions by supplying visual evidence.
LB 1000, introduced by Sen. Health Mello, would require the Nebraska Crime Commission to develop a model policy on body-worn cameras and make it available to law enforcement agencies. It would also require all law enforcement agencies that use body-worn cameras to either adopt the Crime Commission’s model policy or adopt their own policy. If a law enforcement agency adopts its own policy, it could go above and beyond the Crime Commission policy, but it must be consistent with the Crime Commission policy. The bill would also require law enforcement agencies to provide their policies, and annual updates to their policies, if any, to the Crime Commission.
Before 2015, only four states had enacted laws related to body cameras. But just last year, at least 37 states considered legislation on some aspect of body cameras for law enforcement officers and fifteen states enacted new laws. Altogether, 19 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of body camera law on the books. Instead of mandating body cameras, most of the legislation gives individual departments discretion over whether they will use them or not. However, if police do decide to use body cameras, most state laws, including the provisions of LB 1000, set up a policy framework that governs their use.
One of the roadblocks our state and local law enforcement agencies have encountered, is the cost. The Legislative Fiscal Note shows an expenditure of $48,000 for fiscal year 2016-17 and $108,000 for fiscal year 2017-18. That includes only the data storage costs for one year, based on 100 officers wearing cameras in FY 2017 and 200 in FY 2018. The 2018 costs also include retaining 25% of recordings longer than one year, which is the Nebraska State Patrol’s current retention policy. The agency also notes that if 400 officers were to be equipped with body worn cameras, the first year of data storage costs would total $192,000 and the second year would total $240,000. The Patrol notes that these are only storage costs and do not reflect the cost of purchasing body cameras, which are relatively expensive, and the training that must be done so that everyone understand the policies and regulations that must be met when using these cameras.
Body cameras over the next few years will change the nature of policing in unexpected ways. When implemented correctly, body cameras can help promote accountability and transparency, and they can be useful tools for improving training, preserving evidence, and documenting encounters with the public. Just the fact that an officer is wearing a camera could be a factor in de-escalating a confrontation between an officer and the subject. One thing we must remember is that there will be unintended consequences of using cameras. What happens when an officer is on a call and his camera fails to operate properly? Cameras can only capture what it is pointed at, not what may be happening behind the officer or off to the side or out of camera range. What happens if data is lost during transfer from camera to storage? Would there be a chance that embarrassing video taken of a subject that did not result in an arrest could be released to the public? As more and more departments begin using cameras we will begin to understand the consequences of adopting this technology.
LB 1000 has been designated a Speaker Priority bill and has been advanced to the first stage of debate for consideration by the full body of the Legislature. With a priority designation, we should see the bill on the agenda soon.
Have a wonderful Easter Holiday!