Law enforcement will soon be sporting body cameras in Rapid City and Pennington County, raising important questions of exactly how they will be used and at what cost to taxpayers.
Beginning in January, 15 police officers and 15 sheriff’s deputies will be wearing lightweight cameras provided by three manufacturers vying to get the contract to supply the forces with a tool that while valuable raises privacy and transparency concerns.
It is costing $600,000 to launch the latest crime-fighting initiative — $300,000 from the Department of Justice and $150,000 each from the city and county. After three months, the department will likely choose a full-time vendor and our commitment as a community will take shape.
In announcing the federal grant award, local law enforcement emphasized that body cameras will primarily be used to gather evidence and help get convictions, which should come as no surprise.
But that is just one aspect of how body cameras can impact law enforcement and the community at large as more than criminal suspects will likely be captured by those videos. How will their privacy be protected?
If those cameras are left on throughout a shift, some will argue that amounts to a public surveillance and that police could later examine the video in a general search for violations of the law.
On the other hand, if cameras are turned off and on throughout a shift what will guide those decisions? Will it be entirely up to an officer or will there be strict guidelines on usage? Once the officer decides to turn the camera on will those on the other end of the lense be notified in advance and the reasons for it? And once a witness or suspect is interviewed on video will those individuals have the chance to see it? Will law enforcement be allowed to edit videos used in legal proceedings?
Then there is the question of transparency.
South Dakota is not regarded as a beacon of transparency. In fact, the Legislature finally passed a law in the most recent session that allows law enforcement to share mug shots of criminal suspects although — and naturally — there is a charge. State government, however, does not prohibit law enforcement from releasing video to the public, which gives local law enforcement discretion.
This doesn’t mean the public will be denied all the benefits of body cameras. As was pointed out last Sunday in the Journal, video can be used by the defense as well as the prosecution in criminal cases and likely can be subpoenaed for use in civil suits involving law enforcement. A video may also be seen when a member of the public makes accusations of police brutality. Other than those circumstances, however, it will be up to law enforcement to share the video with the public or media.
These questions and others — including the long-term costs and how they will be managed — should be examined during the three months officers are trying out the body cameras. Although law enforcement should lead a policy-making body, it also should include members of the public with expertise in the matter with others being given the opportunity to weigh in as well. It should be a true community discussion.
Ideally, body cameras should improve the quality of police work and even streamline or add clarity to investigations while holding the public and law enforcement more accountable. In order to reach that high-minded goal, the city and county need to develop policies that make it clear how body cameras and video will be used in Rapid City and Pennington County.