U.S. Urges Bodycams for Local Police, but Nixes Them on Federal Teams
A police officer in Oakland, Calif., putting on a body camera, designed to record both audio and video in the field. Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters
WASHINGTON—The Justice Department is publicly urging local police departments to adopt body cameras, saying they are an important tool to improve transparency and trust between officers and citizens.
But privately, the department is telling some of its agents they cannot work with officers using such cameras as part of joint task forces, according to people familiar with the discussions.
The reason: The federal government hasn’t yet adopted guidelines on how and when to use body cameras, rules that would be important to determining how any footage could be used in court, released publicly, or stored by law-enforcement agencies.
The contradiction reveals the potential challenges for federal agencies that work closely with local police, such as the U.S. Marshals. And it underscores how slow the Obama administration has been to craft its own rules on cameras, even as it pushes local authorities to quickly adopt them in the wake of high-profile police shootings.
At a meeting of Marshals supervisors several weeks ago in Colorado, Assistant Director Derrick Driscoll announced that the agency wouldn’t allow any local law-enforcement officers wearing body cameras to serve on Marshals task forces, according to several people who attended the meeting.
The Marshals Service, an agency within the Justice Department, runs scores of task forces around the country, teaming up with local police primarily to hunt fugitives and violent criminals.
Mr. Driscoll said at the meeting that because the Justice Department hadn’t given his agency rules on body cameras, the Marshals couldn’t allow local police with recording equipment to work alongside them on task forces, the people who attended the meeting said. That’s because when local officers join task forces, they must follow federal rules of operation, and for now that means no body cameras.
Some at the gathering voiced concerns about the new policy, saying they didn’t want to lose local partners they had come to know well and trust with their lives, according to people familiar with the matter.
A U.S. Marshals spokesman said state and local officers serving on their task forces “are sworn in as special deputy U.S. marshals, and operate in the same capacity as deputy U.S. marshals.”
Some experts said policy contradictions aren’t surprising as the nation’s law-enforcement officers move toward widespread use of bodycams.
“We’re going to have some growing pains as we move in the direction of more body cameras,” said Ron Hosko, a former senior official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation who now serves as president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit. He added that a no-cameras policy can lead to a perception “that you have something to hide when you don’t record.’’
Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Marshals’ directive puts the agency in an increasingly untenable position. He faulted the Justice Department for not having a body-camera policy more than a year after the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white officer.
“We are well past the date where it’s acceptable for major law-enforcement entities to not have a policy,” Mr. Marlow said.
A Justice Department spokesman said the agency “is looking into this issue and has been consulting with the law enforcement components” within the department.
Nearly a year ago, in response to the Ferguson crisis, President Barack Obamaannounced a multiyear, $75 million effort to fund body cameras for police officers. The administration plans to help local departments acquire 50,000 body cameras in coming years.
In May, when the Justice Department announced the first piece of that effort, $20 million in funding to support body cameras, Attorney General Loretta Lynchsaid the cameras “hold tremendous promise for enhancing transparency, promoting accountability, and advancing public safety for law enforcement officers and the communities they serve.”
The challenge for the Justice Department is that federal law enforcement can be substantially different from local police work. Federal agents tend to undertake long-term investigations, as opposed to patrolling streets where disputed confrontations with citizens are more likely to occur.
The Justice Department’s other law-enforcement arms, including the FBI, said they don’t expect body cameras to be used on any of their task forces because their work is primarily investigative, and when they do work with local police, they tend to be detectives who are unlikely to wear body cameras.
But the Marshals are tasked with hunting fugitives, work that often involves knocking down doors or stopping vehicles. Such work can receive critical aid from teaming up with local police.
Jon Adler, president of the nonprofit Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said there are good reasons to keep parts of the Marshals’ work out of the public eye. Witnesses and informants could be inadvertently exposed, he said, and fugitives could learn the Marshals’ tactics and how to evade them.
“The Marshals hunt down and apprehend the most despicable and violent people. When you engage in that type of mission, it wasn’t intended to be pretty and it won’t be pretty,” Mr. Adler said. “We don’t want the great work the Marshals Service does to devolve into bad reality TV or a sequence of bad YouTube videos.’’
Still, Mr. Adler agreed that losing a valuable task-force member because that officer must wear a body camera is a bad outcome.
This issue, he said, “is a tough one, but there has to be a way to work it out.”