Alameda Police Chief Paul Rolleri

ALAMEDA CITY COUNCIL | When an Alameda police officer was accused three years ago of using excessive force that resulted in multiple arm fractures to a mentally ill man, footage from a body camera purchased by the officer eventually helped to disprove allegations that the officer beat the man while he was handcuffed.

At the time, the Alameda Police Department did not deploy body cameras. Yet like many other Bay Area cities, Alameda recently entered the world of police body camera operation. The proposed policy governing the practice is vague on some details, however, and falls short of the standards recommended by experts on this emerging legal landscape.

In June, the Alameda City Council unanimously approved a five-year, $424,000 contract to purchase 80 Axon police cameras from Taser International, a leading manufacturer in the growing surveillance industry. The high-definition cameras themselves are relatively cheap, but the cost of digital video storage remains high.

Police departments typically posit that body cameras represent the dual potential of showing what alleged suspects are doing while documenting whether police are following their own rules and policies. But civil rights activists note that police control over when the tape rolls could impart a different context to the actual incident. There also is disagreement over who should be allowed to control and view the footage.

“Before rolling out any surveillance technology, including body cameras, Alameda needs to have an open and robust public process,” said Nicole A. Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “The public expects to know why technology like this is being considered, how it is going to be used, and be assured that robust safeguards are in place to guard against misuse before any decisions are made to move forward with body cameras.”

In a widely cited white paper published in March by her organization, the Northern California ACLU urged against police body camera policies that allow officers to “edit on the fly,” essentially choosing when or if the camera’s play button is pushed during a police action. The best scenario, the ACLU concluded, would be to require cameras to roll for the duration of an officer’s shift.

The organization’s report called on police departments to require their officers to turn on body cameras for each stop, along with strict penalties for those who fail to do so.

But Alameda’s policy gives officers much more latitude than that…