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Police Body Cam Footage Is Being Used For Surveillance, Activists Say


So there are big differences in the police reform bills that Republicans and Democrats are pushing in Congress. One thing they do share in common is more money for local police departments that promise to use body-worn cameras. But some activists say that police departments are inappropriately using these cameras for surveillance rather than accountability purposes. From member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Heather van Blokland reports.

HEATHER VAN BLOKLAND, BYLINE: Klee Benally is an advocate for Indigenous sacred sites and a self-described anarchist and peaceful protester. But police in Flagstaff didn't agree at an event a couple of years ago.

KLEE BENALLY: In 2018, the same day that the city of Flagstaff formally announced their Indigenous Peoples Day celebration, which actually has been contentious for years, myself and 40 people rallied in downtown Flagstaff.

VAN BLOKLAND: The rally lasted a few hours, with protesters marching through downtown holding signs and chanting. Police walked alongside, keeping roadways clear for traffic. Everybody went home. There were no arrests until three weeks after the event, when police brought in Benally and about 10 others on charges of obstructing the public thoroughfare based on footage from body cams. Benally says police actions against his group are not about public safety but politically motivated.

BENALLY: We are fighting on the grounds that this is an act of state repression, basically, that, you know, they're trying to chill dissent, undermine dissent and criminalize it.

VAN BLOKLAND: Dave Maass with the Electronic Frontier Foundation says police-worn body cams have turned law enforcement into a surveillance network.

DAVE MAASS: Police departments are making decisions about surveillance technology at parties in hotel rooms, in closed-door meetings, with salespeople, with marketers from tech companies who are trying to tell them about all the miracles of the technology, but not telling them about any of the risks. And we need a process where the public is engaged, elected representatives are engaged. And it's not just a sales situation.

VAN BLOKLAND: He says police should not record footage during First Amendment activities, like journalists at work or during a religious practice or any and all protests.

MAASS: Ultimately, if we're trying to address police accountability, if we're trying to address racism, layering on surveillance is not going to help that. It's going to exacerbate it.

VAN BLOKLAND: But when Seattle police said they'd turn off their body cams during so-called First Amendment events, protesters there accused them of trying to hide evidence of excessive force or abuse. It's not a new debate. Concerns about how body cam footage can and should be used are as old as the cameras themselves. Some Police say surveillance cuts both ways.

Officers can have body cam footage used as evidence against them. And just like video can lead to officers being arrested or dismissed for bad behavior, it can also exonerate them. Right now, policies on body camera use vary widely. There's no federal standard. Bills from both parties currently before Congress can't mandate local police departments use body cameras, but only say they must if they use new federal funds to buy the devices.

For NPR News, I'm Heather van Blokland.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUBLAB AND AZALEH'S "VIDURA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Heather van Blokland
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