Police body-cam videos, privacy and questions

From the Idaho Press


Four hours before the city of Boise announced it was putting Office of Police Accountability Director Jesus Jara on administrative leave, Jara sent a meeting invite to Interim Police Chief Ron Winegar. He accepted, according to emails obtained via a public records request.

But that meeting never happened.

Before 4 p.m. that day, Jara was placed on leave. The following Monday, Winegar declined the outstanding meeting invite.

Four days later, the city council voted 5-1 to remove Jara from his position.

It’s unclear exactly what Jara’s meeting with Winegar would have been about. But 10 days earlier, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean and another staff member told Jara to meet with Winegar and the city’s legal team to address a policy about OPA’s practice of reviewing police body camera footage.

“In early November, my office learned that Jesus Jara was conducting unauthorized surveillance of community members. I believe he was effectively exploiting his access for audits to the system by randomly viewing over 8,000 videos, almost exclusively without cause,” McLean said in a release after Jara was removed from office. “This is a serious violation of the privacy of our residents and a worrisome erosion of the trust we intended to build with the OPA model of oversight.”

For many, this move made little sense. Boiseans and others discussed what happened with a bit of confusion. Shouldn’t the director of police accountability be watching what the police do? Wasn’t that his job?

The Idaho Press spoke to two people with experience or expertise in criminal justice and law enforcement about privacy and body cameras.

Privacy issues for victims and officers

In 2014, while Gary Raney was Ada County Sheriff, his office adopted body-worn cameras. By the end of the rollout, 70 deputies were to have body cameras. As of December 2022, there are 165 body cameras assigned to deputies, according to Ada County Sheriff’s Spokesman Patrick Orr.

“The key to managing body-worn cameras is you want to make sure that they are on at the right time and off at the right time,” Raney said. “That can be a little tricky.”

As a general rule, the body camera should be on when police are having an enforcement contact, Raney said.

“But then the problem started coming up. What if I left my body-worn camera on when I went to the restroom?” Raney said. “Or more officially, do we record domestic violence victims? Do we record rape victims? Do we record children and key witnesses?”

By the time of rollout, the sheriff’s office decided not to record interactions with crime victims, cooperative witnesses, confidential informants and undercover officers, among others.

“There are privacy issues that you should take care of. … I think we have to respect people’s privacy, but at the same time, capture the real evidence,” Raney said. “It’s a delicate balance.”

At the time, some of the deputies and officers and troopers were concerned about being “spied on” and that they might get in trouble. But often the body-worn camera vindicates a deputy from a complaint, Raney said.

The most important privacy issue is sensitive victims like rape victims. In the most “horrid” moment of someone’s life, Raney said it’s disrespectful and retraumatizing for the rape victim to then know the footage is out there.

But another level of privacy is officer privacy. Raney brought up an example of what would happen if an officer forgot their camera was on while they changed their clothes. Most policies don’t allow officers to edit footage, he said. But often a supervisor or higher can go in and edit footage, though there has to be documentation of what was on the footage. All are appropriate policies, Raney said.

When it comes to recording, it’s hard to predict every type of victim or witness.

“Most all policies support some limited amount of officer discretion in the recording, and that is not pointed toward enforcement contacts, that’s pointed toward vulnerable victims and witnesses and respecting their privacy,” Raney said.

It can be hard to come up with a policy that encapsulates every situation a police officer ends up in, according to Boise State Professor of Criminal Justice Lisa Growette Bostaph. But there are ways to place boundaries around the discretionary decision.

When it comes to privacy, Growette Bostaph echoed Raney’s points about not retraumatizing people, especially if the videos are released to the public.

“Officers are often responding to traumatic situations of citizens. That could be a car accident, it could be an overdose,” she said. “Now it’s being shared with the world. And so that forces them to relive that trauma over and over again and it really exploits them because no one knows exactly how that body camera video is going to be used once it’s out into the public realm.”

However, there are other times when releasing the body camera footage can be required to retain their legitimacy among citizens. It can also be a form of accountability.

There can also be concerns about internal viewing of body camera footage. For example, the ACLU has objected to allowing any officers watching the footage of an officer-involved shooting before writing up a report about it. Growette Bostaph said this is likely because the goal is to find out the officer’s perception. The question is what made them shoot, not what the camera saw.

Growette Bostaph said there can be a place for randomly watching body camera footage as part of an officer’s annual evaluation. The sample could be used to review the officer’s interpersonal skills, adherence to policies, and strengths and weaknesses.

Many evaluations are structured according to department policy and sometimes union contracts, depending on the department. The review is usually tied to an annual evaluation so it doesn’t get considered a fishing investigation.

Citizen complaints, internal affairs complaints, an officer-involved shooting or annual evaluations can all be reasons to look at body camera footage.

“It’s structuring discretion. It’s just structuring supervisory discretion,” Growette Bostaph said. “It is tied to specific reasons for viewing that body cam footage. And I think that really would be considered best practice, is structuring discretion.”

Lawsuit and controversy

Jara’s firing was the latest in a series of controversies for the city of Boise and the Boise Police Department, including an ongoing investigation into an officer with white supremacist ties and the September resignation of former police chief Ryan Lee.

Jara’s attorney filed a lawsuit in district court on Dec. 12, alleging Boise interfered with the OPA’s investigation into Lee and then retaliated against Jara for recommending Lee be placed on leave, KTVB reported.

In a statement after Jara was fired, Jara’s counsel said the city council’s move was a “bold and blatant act of retaliation in violation of Idaho’s Whistleblower laws.” Jara acted in accordance with his duties and authority, the statement said, and is confident his decisions and judgment will “withstand the tests presented by forthcoming litigation.”

The Idaho Press requested any internal or external complaints against Jara via a public records request. The city said it could not find any.

From the Idaho Press

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