Are Police Body Cameras a Danger to the Public’s Privacy?

In the last article on body cameras, we looked at the COPS’ perspective on the issue.

However, even with all of the great aspects of body worn cameras (BWC) on police, there are also risks.

One of those risks is to the privacy of the individuals recorded.

Which leads us to a simple question…

Are body worn cameras by police a danger to the public’s privacy?

Let’s see what the deal is!

Body Cameras Worn By Police and Public Privacy

No doubt about it, body cameras have a lot of benefits, not only for police, but also the public.

Yet, the major concern is how the footage is stored, who has access, and when can footage be released to the public.

“Whether you store video internally or externally, protecting the data and preserving the chain of custody should always be a concern.”

– Ken Miller, Chief of Police, Greensboro (North Carolina) Police Department

Whether, you are being recorded or not, it is always a good idea to be on your best behavior when you are interacting with police officers.

But, what happens when footage gets recorded of you in some of your most embarrassing moments? i.e. an emotional interaction with a police officer, or a night after a few too many drinks.

Footage Recorded in Public Vs. Private

Who has access to police footage from body cameras, and how it is disseminated is a big concern for both the public and the police.

It is also something that lawyers think a lot about.

Falen O. Cox, an attorney in Savannah, GA, with Cox, Rodman & Middleton Attorneys at Law, took the time to answer some of my inquires about BWC and public privacy issues.

The first thing she brought up was the distinction between footage recorded in public vs. what is recorded in private.

“Most often BWC record things that happen in public and in view of the public…. However, it gets a bit murkier when we consider law enforcement event that do not take place in view of the public but are nonetheless captured by BWC.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

So, what are the differences between footage recorded in a public interaction with police vs. footage recorded in public?

Let’s take a look.

Body Cameras on Police in Public Interactions

As with most public interactions, there isn’t much protection for individuals when it comes to footage filmed in public. This would include traffic stops, or incidents in other public places.

This also includes other members of the public who might not be directly involved.

As Attorney Falen O. Cox explains:

“For example, if BWC captures a police foot chase, and in the course of that chase it also captures a toddler having a tantrum and telling his mom how much he dislikes her, the exchange between parent and child will likely be broadcast along with the rest of the relevant footage.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

Now this is not to say that police body camera footage which is recorded in public will be released.

In fact, public or private. Most BWC footage is not released to the public unless it is specifically requested.

BWC on Police in Private Interactions

Perhaps the biggest risk to the public’s privacy is in footage recorded in an individual’s private dwelling.

It’s no secret that most of us enjoy the privacy of our homes. Perhaps the last thing you want is a police officer with a body camera walking around your home and filming you and the inside of your home.

But here is the thing…

“…BWC are often recording during execution of search warrants in private homes. While the presence of police might be observable by neighbors and passerby, the interior of the home would not be; the BWC captures this in real time and in a way that feels much more invasive than still photographs which we often used to document a search before the widespread use of BWC.

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

Truly the last thing you want in life is to be embarrassed in your own home. And one of the biggest risks that an individual may face when it comes to body camera footage is what is recorded in private.

So do police officers typically release footage recorded on body cameras? Who has access to footage recorded in your home etc.?

Well there is still a lot to cover, so lets dive in!

Is body camera footage from police interactions a danger to public privacy?
"The risk is not necessarily associated with what they BWC captures, instead it is to whom it is distributed." -Attorney Valen O. Cox

Who has Access to Body Camera Footage?

The answer in general is that it varies from state to state and even city to city. However in most states the public can have access to body camera footage. Access to body camera footage is granted or denied through information requests. But there are limitations.

For example, if an investigation is open. The footage may not be available to the public.

“As it relates to records generated by law enforcement (in Georgia), whether the record may be made public usually depends on whether it is considered an “initial report” and whether the investigation is open or closed.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

At least in the state of Georgia, once a case is closed. The police camera footage can again be accessed through public requests.

Although the public can request body camera footage. A majority of footage will never be seen by uninvolved parties for several reasons:

  • Public interest in court trials is low
  • Police departments typically don’t actively release body camera footage
  • Few interested parties are involved with most footage
  • Court records can be sealed

The biggest reason most footage is not made pubic is because police agencies typically don’t go out of their way to release footage.

There is one exception. If an incident already has a lot of media attention police agencies may release the footage.

“From my observation law enforcement usually decides to release BWC and similar footage in cases that garner great public interest like officer involved shootings.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

Most footage is accessed only within the police department and law reinforcement individuals, for the purpose of investigating crimes.

Although the footage may be released to the public at large in specific incidents. The decision in large part is left up to the individual police department.

Can you prevent body camera footage from being released?

Perhaps the most important question you may have is simply: can you do anything to stop footage from being released?

In some situations, yes. There are some circumstances in which a court may seal any footage from being released to the public.

“Additionally, records or recording that might be considered embarrassing and are not relevant to the underlying legal issues may be sealed upon order of the court. However, the Court is charged with recognizing that in our democracy the public and the media have a strong interest in having access to the records of its government.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

However due to the nature of how police departments operate, there is no one solution to getting footage sealed from the public.

If you are looking to have your embarrassing or compromising BWC footage that you want sealed by a court, your best bet is to hire a lawyer.

In the End

In most instances body camera footage of police interactions is limited to those directly involved in the matter.

Not because it can’t be accessed by the public, but simply because: very few parties are interested in the matter.

Often times footage will be played at court, but the public rarely attends court.

“Even though BWC may be broadcast in open court usually the only people there to view it are the lawyers, parties to the case, and court personnel.”

Falen O. Cox, CRM Attorneys, Savannah, Georgia

In general, access to footage from body camera footage of officer involved incidents is limited to parties directly involved. And of course it varies a bit from state to state.

Some states, still haven’t passed legislation on body camera footage release.

In the end, your best option is to be on your best behavior.

And if you do slip up, hire a lawyer.

Falen O. Cox of CRM Attorneys, A lawyer in Savannah, Georgia

Thank you to Attorney Falen O. Cox of Cox, Rodman, and Middleton for the great responses. If you want to see more from her check out her tips on working with a public defender, or check out

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