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Obama's police reform proposals lofty but need work, legal experts say

Legal experts say police body cameras raise major privacy concerns, especially when officers enter homes

Legal experts warn that President Barack Obama's recently announced proposals for improving police interactions with the public could raise privacy concerns and risk further alienating minority communities if the plans are not implemented correctly.

Obama's proposals were unveiled Monday amid mounting public anger after a grand jury last week declined to indict white police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in August.

The president has faced criticism for not aggressively addressing the outcome of the grand jury proceeding, which community leaders have slammed as unfair and racially motivated. On Monday, however, Obama said that a "simmering distrust exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color."

Obama announced three proposals for curbing what he called a "militarized culture" within police departments: equipping officers with body cameras to capture their interactions with civilians; requiring federal agencies that grant military equipment to consult with civil rights organizations; and the creation of a task force that will recommend ways the federal government can support transparency in police departments.

The recommendations are part of a three-year, $263 million spending package aimed at expanding training for law enforcement. The package includes $75 million to help pay for 50,000 small, lapel-mounted cameras to record police on the job. State and local governments would pay half the cost.

While lauding Obama for his efforts to tackle systemic police transgressions, legal experts cautioned that some of the recommendations — especially the body cameras — raise legal concerns.

Cameras could potentially help resolve the type of disputes between police and witnesses that arose in the Ferguson shooting. Some witnesses have said Brown had his hands up when Wilson shot him. Wilson, however, said he feared for his life when Brown hit him and reached for his gun.

Demands for police to wear cameras have increased across the country since Brown's death. Some officers in Ferguson have since started wearing them, and the New York Police Department became the largest in the U.S. to adopt the technology when it launched a pilot program in early September.

But before cameras can be supplied to police departments, legal experts say, privacy safeguards need to be developed and questions over who has access to the recordings need to be resolved, particularly in cases when police need to enter a home. "There is the question of what kind of interactions will be recorded, because a lot of these interactions can very much be part of peoples' private lives, such as when police are responding to a domestic violence incident," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

"In these cases, police enter the home and record the entire interaction,” she said. “So there's work that goes into developing protocols for cameras that place limits on when recording can happen, for how long, and who can get a look at them. You don't want to have this giant cache of highly sensitive video feed."

She added that strict limits must be developed and footage should only be used in investigations of police misconduct or where the police have reasonable suspicion that the recording contains evidence of a crime.  

After which, she says, only recordings that are flagged should be kept beyond a few weeks. "Oversight, especially audit trails of who accesses recordings, is critical. Some of these limits have been adopted by police departments, but there is currently no single model that I know that adequately addresses all these issues," she said.

But even with such safeguards in place, body cameras are not a complete solution to resolving discrepancies between officer and eyewitness accounts, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy advisor at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Even if body cameras had been used by Ferguson police, we still could have run into the same problems with interpretation, with people offering different versions of the same event," Stanley said.

Still, experts point to studies showing that body cameras overall have had a positive impact on community relations. Patel said that there is good reason to consider body cameras as being "very effective" in improving police interactions.

"There is definitely empirical evidence that supports the fact that body cameras can reduce police violence, as well as evidence showing that the number of complaints against police also come down when body cameras are worn," Patel said.

A recent Justice Department report, which had been in the works before the Ferguson shooting, said there is evidence that both police and civilians behave better when they know cameras are around. And a Cambridge University study published recently shows that Rialto, California, with a population of about 100,000, saw an 89 percent decline in the number of complaints against police officers in a yearlong trial that used body cameras. The number of times the police used force against suspects also declined.

Obama's second proposal, to review federal programs that provide military-style equipment to local law enforcement, coincided with the conclusion of a three-month review of these programs announced Monday at the White House.

In the past five years, the review revealed, five federal agencies have placed $18 billion worth of equipment in the hands of local police, including 5,235 Humvees, 617 mine-resistant vehicles and 616 aircraft.

The programs, the review says, have grown after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But “training has not been institutionalized, specifically with respect to civil rights and civil liberties protections, or the safe use of equipment received through the federal government,” it says.

Despite these troubling findings, senior administration officials say Obama will not seek to repeal the programs. Rather, he is pushing for more oversight to make sure the equipment is used safely.

"What's notable about this announcement is that there wasn't any kind of decision to decrease or restrict military grade equipment,” said Darius Charney, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “We think there has to be actual demilitarization. These proposals don't get us any closer to that goal."

Overall, legal experts cautiously praised Obama’s proposals, but they agree that more needs to be done to overcome years of distrust between police and minority communities. "The issue isn't as narrow as body cameras,”  Patel said. “It’s a broader rethinking of how police and communities should interact with one another."

While Obama's rhetoric on police reform sounds lofty, Charney said, ultimately it is too early to tell whether the proposals will improve police behavior. "Much of it will hinge on the policies and procedures that each law enforcement agency establishes to enforce these policies," he said.

"It's really important that the White House and task force include the voices of impacted communities in these discussions,” he added. “If you really want to have community oriented policing, it has to be a partnership."

With The Associated Press

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