Body Cameras on School Police Spark Student Privacy Concerns

Joseph Fox, a school resource officer in the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, wears a personal body camera while on duty at Southwind High School in Memphis, Tenn. A growing number of school-based police are being equipped with the recording devices.
Joseph Fox, a school resource officer in the Shelby County Sheriff's Department, wears a personal body camera while on duty at Southwind High School in Memphis, Tenn. A growing number of school-based police are being equipped with the recording devices.
—Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal/Zuma
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As law-enforcement agencies around the country begin using body cameras to monitor police interactions with the public, the chest-mounted recording devices are increasingly making their way into public schools.

The devices, about the size of a pager, have been a centerpiece of police-reform proposals since a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown last summer, an event marked by conflicting accounts from bystanders.

The use of body cameras in schools has been welcomed by some, but it has also sparked privacy concerns from some districts and civil rights groups.

"People tend to be on their best behavior when they know they're being recorded," said Bill Vaughn, the chief of police in Johnston, Iowa, where the 6,700-student district's two school resource officers now wear body cameras.

The cameras provide objective evidence for use in criminal proceedings, including those involving students, Mr. Vaughn said, and they could help refute or prove accusations of officer misconduct.

Encouraged by widespread public support, new legislation, new government grants, and a proposal by President Barack Obama to help police agencies buy 50,000 body cameras, municipal police departments around the country have started equipping officers with the devices, typically prioritizing officers who don't use vehicles with onboard recording equipment.

In many cases, that means school resource officers are now wearing the cameras, sometimes after very little consultation between the police departments that employ them and the schools where they work. And recently, the 215,000-student Houston district's police department has begun to gradually outfit all its officers with body cameras.

Sgt. Jason Halifax, of the Des Moines Police Department, in Des Moines, Iowa, shows a body camera used by one of the agency's school resource officers.
Sgt. Jason Halifax, of the Des Moines Police Department, in Des Moines, Iowa, shows a body camera used by one of the agency's school resource officers.
—Charlie Neibergall/AP

"These cameras will serve as a vital tool to better monitor school environments, evaluate school incidents, and ensure our officers are performing well," Robert Mock, the chief of the Houston district's police department, said in a statement.

Officers will switch on the cameras when they investigate complaints or interact with students, Mr. Mock said in a video posted on the district's website.

No national statistics are available on the use of police body cameras in schools, but news media accounts show school police around the country, including those in Memphis, Tenn.; Topeka, Kan.; and Des Moines, Iowa, have adopted them recently. But the eagerness to adopt the technology comes with concerns from some.

The same civil rights groups that have championed the devices as a method of building police accountability—particularly in confrontational situations like the Ferguson shooting—argue that school-based officers should not be wearing them.

Privacy vs. Accountability

In the educational context, where extreme instances of inappropriate use of physical force by police are far less common than they are on the street, concerns about student privacy outweigh any potential benefits from the use of cameras, said Chad Marlow, the advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Body cameras in a general setting allow the public to monitor police and hold law enforcement officers accountable by obtaining and sharing footage through open-records laws, Mr. Marlow said. But in schools, where students are the stakeholders, the ACLU believes that's less likely to happen.

Instead, advocates fear footage of students getting in fights or making mistakes could become an unshakeable part of their reputations and digital footprints. In some cases, police footage has gone viral after it was posted online, though there haven't yet been high-profile cases of that happening in schools.

Records kept by school police are not subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal student privacy law that shields most student data from public disclosure, the U.S. Department of Education has said. State open records laws provide varying levels of exemption for materials related to crimes committed by minors.

In a 2013 position paper, the ACLU said body cameras worn by general police officers can be a "win for all" with the right policies in place. But the organization has also spoken out against many forms of recording in public schools, including security cameras.

The rush by cities to outfit police officers with body cameras after last summer's police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., is raising concerns about the use of the devices by law enforcement officers who work in schools.
The rush by cities to outfit police officers with body cameras after last summer's police shooting of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Mo., is raising concerns about the use of the devices by law enforcement officers who work in schools.
—Charlie Neibergall/AP

"Really, what it would become is just a tool for filming and capturing students in their schools," Mr. Marlow said of body cameras. "It's too much of an infringement on privacy given the other factors at play."

To be sure, many civil rights and student groups have expressed concerns about school police, saying officers are often too forceful with students and that, in many districts, police are involved in routine discipline matters that should be handled by educators. In some schools, students have used cellphones to record interactions with school police. One such video, which showed school police in Houston wrestling a small female student to the ground for a cellphone violation, gained widespread news coverage last year.

But advocacy groups say those concerns should be addressed through clear agreements between schools and police agencies that set limits on how officers should interact with students, not through monitoring with body cameras.

Roman Roberson, the assistant chief of the Kilgore, Texas, police department, said such privacy concerns are unfounded. Kilgore's three school resource officers have worn body cameras for about six years, along with many of the department's other officers, and in that time, the district hasn't heard many complaints, he said.

Officers only switch on their cameras when they are responding to a complaint or interacting with students, Mr. Roberson said. And, because storage is costly, footage not needed for criminal proceedings is only maintained on a server for 90 days.

"Officers aren't just walking around randomly filming people," Mr. Roberson said. "The cameras aren't just on. They have to activate the camera."

Perhaps complicating discussions about body cameras in schools, the National Association of School Resource Officers takes no position on their use in schools, and the most frequently referenced best-practice guide for the devices doesn't mention school police at all.

That guide, written by the Police Executive Research Forum for the U.S. Department of Justice's office of community-oriented-policing services, outlines recommendations on storing footage, when officers should activate cameras, and training.

"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," the guide says.

Some districts have had disagreements with police about the devices.

Related Blog

In Isle of Wight County, Va., the 5,500-student school system wants in-school sheriff's deputies, who've been wearing the cameras since October, to announce when they are recording, to blur the faces of students who are not directly involved in recorded incidents, and to provide the school with copies of the recordings, local television news station WAVY reported. But the county's sheriff did not want to have two sets of recording policies for his officers, the station said.

Police chiefs in several cities said it is important for agencies to communicate with schools they protect about how and when cameras will be used to avoid miscommunication or disagreements.

Vol. 34, Issue 23, Pages 1, 15

Published in Print: March 4, 2015, as Police Body Cameras Surfacing in Schools
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