A sweeping and at times contentious policy barring the use of body cameras by police officers assigned to hundreds of federal investigative task forces around the nation has been largely reversed, the Justice Department said Thursday.
The announcement of new federal guidelines on the wearing of body cameras by deputized federal agents comes as the nation has recently witnessed numerous controversial incidents involving the use of force by police, as well as attacks on officers in the line of duty.
Under the new policy, which includes several major caveats, police departments will now have greater latitude in recording the actions of their own officers assisting in the execution of federal arrest and search warrants.
Such recordings were previously banned by officers assisting the federal government, and current Justice Department policy continues to generally prohibit full-time federal agents from wearing recording devices without special authorization.
“The Department’s policy that permits federal task force officers to use body worn cameras when executing search and arrest warrants is a significant step towards greater transparency,” said Justice Department spokesperson Kristina Mastropasqua.
For decades, federal law enforcement agencies — which are relatively small in numbers when compared to the ranks of state and local police departments around the country — have partnered with non-federal entities to investigate and arrest fugitives, drug dealers, and other violent criminals, including suspected terrorists.
For example, the FBI — one of several federal agencies that operates investigative task forces — currently runs more than 200 Joint Terrorism Task Forces and 160 Violent Gang Task Forces across the country.
In deputizing certain local officers as federal agents, the federal government is able to extend the jurisdiction of city, county, and state law enforcement to participate in the enforcement of federal criminal law. The arrangement also allows for the federal government to pay for overtime wages and other expenses incurred by local law enforcement officers participating in federal task forces.
While the new guidelines released by the Justice Department now allow participating local agencies to wear cameras, they come with a long list of caveats that greatly control what can and cannot be recorded.
For example, local law enforcement task force officers are only allowed to activate their body cameras during a planned arrest or the execution of a court-ordered search warrant. The policy states officers may activate body-worn cameras while approaching a suspect or premises, but must switch off their cameras once a particular scene is determined to be “under law enforcement control.”
The policy also prohibits officers from recording undercover personnel, informants and other sources, witness interviews, and, sensitive investigative techniques and equipment used by law enforcement.
In addition to the above guidelines, the new policy prevents task force officers from recording any investigative activities relating to the investigation of government officials, medical facilities, or matters of national security.
While individual partnering police agencies may use task force officer body camera footage to conduct internal investigations of their officers, the new guidelines mandate that any public release of body camera footage must be authorized by the Justice Department.
The decision to allow local law enforcement officers to operate body cameras while assisting federal agents followed several requests — and, at times, demands — from local leaders representing departments whose regulations mandate the use of cameras by their personnel.
In May of last year, The Washington Post reported that Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and police chief Erika Shields pulled approximately 25 police officers out of a federal task force of agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and US Marshals Service over the federal government’s “no camera” policy.
Also last year, the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, withdrew its officers from a US Marshals task force over the federal government’s refusal to allow personnel to wear department-mandated body cameras, according to the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system.
The issue of body cameras has garnered increased attention throughout 2020 following the controversial police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and others. Criminal justice reform advocates say video evidence of police encounters is critical to reconstructing events and holding officers accountable for their actions.
In addition to helping ensure accountability, many cities that require the use of police body cameras have claimed that videos of encounters also help promote officer safety, resolve complaints against officers, and assist with the prosecution of police investigations.
And law enforcement experts, such as Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, say video of incidents involving the use of force by police are critical training tools for improving effectiveness at departments across the country.