May 15, 2015

Civil Rights Principles on Body-Worn Cameras

Harlan Yu

In 2015, we coordinated the development of this shared set of civil rights principles for body-worn cameras. The principles were endorsed by a major coalition of 34 local and national organizations, including the NAACP, National Council of La Raza, National Urban League, Center for Media Justice, ACLU, and others.

Civil Rights Principles on Body Worn Cameras

Mobile cameras operated by law enforcement may play a valuable role in the present and future of policing. Whether they’re worn by an officer or mounted on police equipment, cameras could help provide transparency into law enforcement practices, by providing first-hand evidence of public interactions.

But police-operated cameras are no substitute for broader reforms of policing practices. In fact, cameras could be used to intensify disproportionate surveillance and enforcement in heavily policed communities of color. Without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, there is a real risk that these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability.

To help ensure that police-operated cameras are used to enhance civil rights, departments must:

1. Develop camera policies in public with the input of civil rights advocates and the local community. Current policies must always be publicly available, and any policy changes must also be made in consultation with the community.

2. Commit to a set of narrow and well-defined purposes for which cameras and their footage may be used. In particular, facial recognition and other biometric technologies must be carefully limited: if they are used together with body cameras, officers will have far greater visibility into heavily policed communities—where cameras will be abundant—than into other communities where cameras will be rare. Such technologies could amplify existing disparities in law enforcement practices across communities.

3. Specify clear operational policies for recording, retention, and access, and enforce strict disciplinary protocols for policy violations. While some types of law enforcement interactions (e.g., when attending to victims of domestic violence) may happen off-camera, the vast majority of interactions with the public—including all that involve the use of force—should be captured on video. Departments must also adopt systems to monitor and audit access to recorded footage, and secure footage against unauthorized access and tampering.

4. Make footage available to promote accountability with appropriate privacy safeguards in place. At a minimum: (1) footage that captures police use of force should be made available to the public and press upon request, and (2) upon request, footage should be made available in a timely manner to any filmed subject seeking to file a complaint, to criminal defendants, and to the next-of-kin of anyone whose death is related to the events captured on video. Departments must consider individual privacy concerns before making footage available to broad audiences.

5. Preserve the independent evidentiary value of officer reports by prohibiting officers from viewing footage before filing their reports. Footage of an event presents a partial—and sometimes misleading—perspective of how events unfolded. Pre-report viewing could cause an officer to conform the report to what the video appears to show, rather than what the officer actually saw.

Signed by:

American Civil Liberties Union

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Asian Law Caucus

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Los Angeles

Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago

Center for Democracy and Technology

Center for Media Justice

Data & Society

Demand Progress


Electronic Frontier Foundation

Free Press

Hip Hop Caucus

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

Martinez Street Women’s Center

May First/People Link

Media Alliance

Media Literacy Project

Media Mobilizing Project

Million Hoodies Movement for Justice


NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

National Association of Social Workers

National Council of La Raza

National Hispanic Media Coalition

National Urban League

New America’s Open Technology Institute

Public Knowledge

Southwest Workers’ Union

Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center

Voices for Racial Justice

Working Narratives

Alvaro Bedoya, Executive Director, Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law*

* Affiliation for Identification Purposes Only

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