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More School Police Wear Body Cameras to Track Interactions With Students

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Updated with ACLU position.

After a Ferguson, Mo., police officer shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown this summer, many civil rights advocates argued that requiring police to wear body cameras would have helped to avoid disputes about whether the officer was justified in using deadly force.

In discussions about police reform that followed that incident—and a grand jury's decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for shooting Brown—body cameras took center stage.

Recording police interactions heightens transparency, strengthening the public's trust in agencies in instances where cameras observe proper police behavior, and providing accountability and evidence when officers behave poorly, advocates for the devices say. And this is particularly true when officers perform most of their duties away from official vehicles, which are typically equipped with dash cams.

So does it logically follow that school police—who play a sometimes polarizing role in school security—should wear body cameras? A growing number of districts and district-affiliated police departments around the country say yes.

The 215,000-student Houston school district announced plans this week to pilot body cameras on 25 school police officers with plans to equip all 210 officers with cameras by the end of the 2015-16 school year. From a district press release:

" 'As the largest district in the state, we have close to 300 schools, 215,000 students, and 28,000 employees that we need to keep safe,' said HISD Police Chief Robert Mock. 'These cameras will serve as a vital tool to better monitor school environments, evaluate school incidents, and ensure our officers are performing well.'

The four-month pilot program comes after more than a year of research into the use and benefits provided by the cameras. Surrounding law enforcement agencies—including the Harris County Sheriff's Office and Houston Police Department—are also piloting body cameras.

'We will be one of the largest districts to have them on hand,' Mock said. 'As local law enforcement prepare to use this tool, it's important that our officers are well-equipped, too, to ensure the safety of our district and the transparency of our department.' "

As this district-created video shows, the cameras will not run continuously. Rather, police will switch them on before they interact with students. 

While Houston's pilot has attracted plenty of attention, a scan of recent news articles shows that the district is not alone in equipping officers with cameras. The practice remains far from the norm, but discussions about the devices have happened in districts around the country, including some in Kansas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania.

Why record police interactions?

Some advocates for reworking and rethinking schools' approaches to safety and discipline have said police shouldn't be in schools at all. They're concerned that officers contribute to a "school-to-prison pipeline" and create civil rights concerns by involving themselves in routine disciplinary situations that were previously the jurisdiction of principals and teachers. In recent years, students in some districts have alleged inappropriate use of pepper spray by school police and inappropriate use of physical force and restraints, for example. 

But, as lawmakers work to address public concerns about school safety, many groups have said hiring an officer with a badge is preferable to arming a teacher with a concealed carry permit, as many states have proposed.

Schools have responded to civil rights concerns by carefully drafting agreements with the police agencies, dictating when, where, and how they may interact with students. But body cameras may also help bring some balance to the situation by ensuring proper behavior by school-based officers, supporters say.

Thanks to the advent of cell phone cameras, some students have taken recording into their own hands. Houston itself became a target of criticism and protests last year after a 4-foot-10-inch female student said school police tackled and handcuffed her after she refused to give up her cell phone.

How should schools manage privacy concerns?

As more local police departments pilot the use of body cameras, one of the largest public concerns has been privacy. That concern may be heightened in schools, which are subject to federal student privacy laws. And public information about juvenile behavior is typically considered more sensitive. City council members in York, Pa., recently voiced such concerns when school police there proposed wearing cameras.

It's a tough balance. If a camera only records at an officer's discretion, some officers may not flip the switch during particularly abusive incidents, or they may simply forget. If a camera records all the time, it's more likely to raise privacy concerns and take up costly memory space, law enforcement officials have said.

While the U.S. Department of Justice office of community oriented policing services has released best practices for body cameras in general, there are no guides specifically addressing the use of such equipment in school settings.

In its general 2013 position paper about use of body cameras by police, the American Civil Liberties Union says the equipment can be a "win for all" with the right policies in place.

"For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability," the paper says. "Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies to ensure they protect the public without becoming yet another system for routine surveillance of the public, and maintain public confidence in the integrity of those privacy protections. Without such a framework, their accountability benefits would not exceed their privacy risks."

Update: But the ACLU opposes body cameras in school settings, advocacy and policy counsel Chad Marlow said. In the educational context, where extreme instances of inappropriate use of physical force by police are far less common, concerns about student privacy outweigh any potential benefits from the use of cameras, he told me in a phone interview.

Body cameras in a general setting would allow the public to monitor police and hold them accountable, Marlow said. But in schools, where students are the stakeholders, the ACLU believes that's less likely to happen.

"Really what it would become is just a tool for filming and capturing students in their schools. ... It's too much of an infringement on privacy given the other factors at play," he said.

To address concerns about police behavior, school leaders should create careful agreements with law enforcement agencies and ensure that officers are properly trained and managed, Marlow said.

Incidents like that captured on the cell phone video in Houston are "extraordinarly disturbing," he said. "But the proper response is what things can we do to preven this from happening again? It doesn't necessarily mean that every tool at your disposal is an appropriate response."

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