Legal Review: Use of Body Cameras Being Studied in Fairfax County

By Virginia criminal defense lawyer Steve Duckett, with Price Benowitz, LLP.

Body cameras have entered the public consciousness over the last two years due to the high-profile killings of unarmed black men across the United States.

In many of those instances, it was initially the word of the officer against the word of eyewitnesses. Law enforcement and members of the public have identified the need for consistent reporting of civilian interaction with members of law enforcement.

With today’s wireless connectivity and technology, small, wearable cameras that can constantly upload and store data are available to provide contemporaneous documentary evidence of these interactions.

“Body cameras are incredible tools that all law enforcement should take advantage of,” said Steve Duckett, a Manassas criminal law attorney. “They provide in-the-moment documentation of police interaction with the public, suspects, and arrestees. This evidence is crucial for not only law enforcement, but for the public and defense attorneys as well. Additionally, the cameras encourage accountability and make officers more aware of how they interact with the public.”

The Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD) has initiated a pilot program to study the benefits of department-wide body cameras and will work with American University researchers to provide a report on those benefits.

The goal of the pilot program is to determine whether investment in body cameras across the department will provide the type of benefits to justify incurring the roughly $4 million per year necessary to maintain the program.

However, any program like this has drawbacks, and one of the most commonly cited drawbacks is how police records of interactions will be used, and what sort of affect that will have on privacy. Duckett thinks that the proper limitations on when the cameras will record and when the evidence can be used are being discussed in relation to this pilot program. “Having reviewed the policy adopted by the FCPD, I think they are taking the right steps to ensure that individual privacy rights are protected,” Duckett said.

The FCPD policy, which was drafted with input from both law enforcement and public stakeholders, indicates that body cameras should be turned off upon the request of citizens when responding to a call at someone’s home, or when someone is reporting a crime and desires anonymity. Additionally, cameras should be turned off when in court, hospitals, or mental health facilities, unless the officer suspects that the use of force may be necessary.

The presence of cameras may make people uncomfortable about interacting with law enforcement. The important thing to remember is that those cameras are there to protect all parties, and as long as the proper practices are in place to restrict when those cameras are on and when their recordings can be introduced as evidence, they should add positively to the interactions of police and the public.

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