Are Philly's body-worn camera policies fair? Here's how one expert will testify - Technical.ly Philly

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Mar. 13, 2017 12:59 pm

Are Philly’s body-worn camera policies fair? Here’s how one expert will testify

A preview of what a D.C.-based think tank rep will say at today's City Council hearing on the issue.

Harlan Yu, principal at Upturn, is testifying before City Council today on Philly's body camera policies.

(Courtesy photo)

For the first time since the Philly pilot of body-worn cameras for cops, there will be an open City Council session to talk about how Philly’s doing in terms of the policies that regulate the technology.

At the hearing, happening today at 1 p.m., Harlan Yu — principal at D.C.-based policy and technology think-tank Upturn — will take the mic to explain how Philly performed in the firm’s BWC Scorecard, a research project that evaluated the body-worn camera policies in place in 43 major cities across eight indicators of transparency and accountability.

“[Body-worn cameras] are powerful tools, but the policies that guide how they’re used, who gets to see the footage, whether officers get to turn the cameras on and off … all of that matters on whether this technology will let the police continue to overpolice our minority communities or if it’s a tool that’s going to provide accountability and transparency for the people who need it,” Yu told Technical.ly.

You can read his full written testimony here, but we’ll give you the TL;DR on how Philly is doing on each of the indicators:

  • Policy available: Good

Yes, the policy is available online. Yu calls this the “bare-minimum” of transparency for the technology.

  • Officer discretion: Good 

The policy says that cameras must be turned on for a long list of events, therefore limiting officer’s access to “off-screen” time while on duty. “This is important to make sure cameras capture critical types of interactions,” said Yu.

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  • Personal privacy: Good 

Cameras will capture victims of sexual abuse or record inside of people’s home, so policies must be mindful of whether some use of some images are necessary. “Philly police is attentive to these privacy issues and is attentive of the trade-off in recording under these conditions,” Yu said.

  • Officer review: Bad

Officers are allowed to look at the footage before filing their reports — they’re actually required to. “Officers shouldn’t have an advantage here,” said Yu.

  • Footage retention: Bad

One worry found in minority communities is that footage can be used for later retaliation or suspect. Therefore policies should limit the capacity for longterm retention of footage after a certain period has gone by. Philly’s current policy doesn’t state this.

  • Footage misuse: Room for improvement

Though Philly’s policy prohibits tampering with the footage, there are additional steps that need to be taken to avoid the risk of foul play in the recorded footage.

  • Footage access: Bad 

For the policy expert, this is actually the most perilous of aspects in the Philly legislation. “Right now, there’s no requirement that the Department allow people filing complaints to watch the footage,” said Yu. “This creates an uneven playing field where the question becomes: what’s the purpose of cameras? If one of the purposes is transparency,  providing footage to recorded individuals should be a minimum safety valve.”

  • Biometric use: Bad

The current policy issues no limits on the use of biometric technologies like facial recognition to identify individuals in footage. Yu will suggest to the Council that this specific use of technology be banned.

“What we see here in Philly is that the cameras are tools for keeping officers accountable,” Yu said. “But the cameras won’t match those promises unless there are proper safeties in place.”

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Roberto Torres

Roberto Torres became Technical.ly Lead Philly Reporter in May 2016. Prior, he was a freelance contributor to Technical.ly and Al Dia News. The native Venezuelan moved to Philadelphia in 2015 after reporting on research at his alma mater, the University of Zulia. Whenever he's not fencing deadlines, he can be found standing in line at Overbrook Pizza in West Philly, running Netflix/Hulu marathons with his wife or reading news from Venezuela.

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