By Matt Stroud, Criminal Justice Researcher/Writer, ACLU of Pennsylvania
I thought I’d misheard him.
At a Duquesne University conference on a Friday afternoon in late January, John Rago — an associate law professor at Duquesne who’s sometimes associated with proposed wrongful conviction legislative reforms — was giving a presentation about police body-worn cameras to a group of about 100 people. Much of his presentation was predictable: he showed three videos, for example, on a big screen in a university ballroom that depicted officers acting both appropriately and in the wrong. The message? Policing is complicated; both good and bad apples exist. Fair enough.
But he also said something that was shocking to me — something that made me wonder if I’d misunderstood him, or he’d misspoken.
“Why does the public want body cameras?” he asked, about 11 minutes into his talk. “Let me start by saying, as a policy, they are not designed necessarily to monitor police conduct.”
Body cameras. Police body cameras. The devices that caused Taser International’s bodycam sales figures to multiply in the wake of Michael Brown being killed by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Those body cameras are not designed to monitor police conduct. That’s what he said.
“They are designed to protect the integrity of the criminal justice process,” Rago went on. And to “give us more effective evidence.”
This conference where Rago was speaking was part of Duquesne’s “Forensic Fridays” program at the Cyril H. Wecht Institute of Forensic Science and Law. This particular session was titled, “Balancing Safety, Justice and Privacy: Body-Worn Cameras, Forensic Evidence and the Right to Know.” Rago was there ostensibly as a moderating presence — an academic voice. The others who gave presentations after Rago included three legislators — State Rep. Dom Costa, State Sen. Randy Vulakovich, and former State Rep. David J. Mayernik — who all ascended to their political perches from positions in law enforcement. A City of Pittsburgh police commander also spoke.
It wasn’t surprising that men with law enforcement backgrounds agreed with Rago, advocating against body cameras as police monitoring devices. But to have someone from a university make the same argument? That was new. It marked a shift in the discussion about whether body camera footage should be public on not. And in no other state in the country is that discussion more important right now than in Pennsylvania.
In its last session of 2016, Pennsylvania’s state Senate passed Senate Bill 976 — a law that was introduced by 11 senators including Costa and Vulakovich. It would’ve made police body camera footage nearly impossible to obtain, but the House wasn’t able to vote on it before the session ended. So it went nowhere.
That bill has not been re-introduced in the new legislative session this year, but it’s going to be. And if the arguments made by Rago and the law enforcement crew at Duquesne are any indication, the premise is going to be that body camera footage should be withheld in nearly every circumstance because it was designed to be evidence — not a police monitoring tool.
To be clear: That is wrong. And in addition to being wrong, it also ignores the fundamental reasons why even high-ranking police leaders agreed that body cameras would help to build trust between officers and the communities they serve. It’s difficult to tell whether legislators and academics such as Rago are unaware of this, or if they simply choose to disregard it.
I would guess it’s the latter. At the end of Rago’s talk on that Friday in late January, he presented a list of outside readings — documents that people in the audience should take in. One of them, titled, “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned,” is an exhaustive document produced by law enforcement leaders collaborating between the endangered COPS Office at the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Police Executive Research Forum. In it’s introduction — in literally the second paragraph of that 92-page document — PERF’s executive director wrote the following.
“A police department that deploys body-worn cameras is making a statement that it believes the actions of its officers are a matter of public record. By facing the challenges and expense of purchasing and implementing a body-worn camera system, developing policies, and training its officers in how to use the cameras, a department creates a reasonable expectation that members of the public and the news media will want to review the actions of officers.”
That paragraph went on to say that “body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request — not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.”
I’m not sure when legislators, law enforcement leaders, and academics like John Rago decided that the galvanizing premises behind police body cameras were invalid. But it appears that they have.
It turns out that I didn’t mishear Rago. I didn’t misunderstand him, and he didn’t misspeak. Somehow, law enforcement leaders and their spokespeople have determined that body cameras are just another tool of policing — a tool that produces evidence that the public shouldn’t be able to see.
They can make that argument, sure. But if legislators and errant members of the academic community are going to try to reinvest historical precedent to keep body camera footage secret, they’re going to have to better than merely insisting that the past isn’t the past, and that people weren’t protesting in Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Charleston, in Staten Island, and elsewhere in favor of more police accountability, and more police monitoring. They’re going to have to back up their arguments with something rational and logical.
I’ve heard nothing of the sort.