Cameras, Cops and Accountability

By John Powell, Newseum exhibits writer

More than a year after events in Ferguson, Mo., brought issues of police accountability to the national stage, communities across the United States continue to debate whether police officers should be required to wear body cameras. As cities and states grapple with implementing body camera policies, questions are being raised about the public accessibility of footage and privacy implications.

On Wednesday, Sept. 16, the Newseum Institute hosted a discussion on these issues entitled “Cameras, Cops and Accountability.” Panelists included Tamaso Johnson, policy attorney at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Elizabeth Lyons, privacy officer at the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department; Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital; and Katie Townsend, litigation director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The conversation was moderated by Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, and Kevin Goldberg, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

The discussion covered a wide range of topics, from police accountability and transparency to freedom of information laws and privacy concerns in cases involving victims of domestic violence or sexual assault. Tamaso Johnson of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence voiced concerns that while body cameras may be intended to restore public trust in the police, they may actually damage community relations by further traumatizing victims of domestic violence. The ACLU’s Monica Hopkins-Maxwell cautioned that without proper policies in place, body cameras could “turn into another tool for police to surveil communities.”

While panelists differed in their views on the benefits and drawbacks of body cameras, they all agreed on two things: the debate will go on and the devices are here to stay.

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