Air Force Suspends Using Body Cameras for Its Security Personnel

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Defense Department police officer Richard Martinez, a patrol officer with the 673d Security Forces Squadron, turns on a new body camera during a routine stop Jan. 8, 2021, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. (Senior Airman Crystal A. Jenkins/U.S. Air Force)

While police units across the U.S. are seeing increased calls for body camera use to better monitor what officers are doing, the Air Force’s law enforcement troops will stop using the security tool in part due to lack of funding for their application.

The service has chosen to discontinue its use of body cameras for Security Forces members because there is no comprehensive Defense Department policy for the cameras nor an “existing program of record that would provide service-wide funding or guidance on the appropriate use of the body-worn cameras,” spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said Friday. 

A memorandum sent to all Air Force bases regarding the change was first posted on the unofficial, but popular Amn/Nco/Snco Facebook page, and was confirmed as authentic by Military.com. Additionally, there is no official program or guidance that dictates how the footage acquired on the cameras should be stored, Stefanek said in an email. 

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“We service a gated military community with an extremely low rate of law enforcement incidents that does not currently present a need for a non-DoD required or resourced body camera system,” she said. “However, Department of the Air Force installations have cameras at key and critical locations that serve multiple purposes.”

According to the memo, the service weighed their value and found “mixed data on the benefits along with significant handling and security concerns.”

The service estimates 13 units actively employed body cameras; nine had purchased the equipment but had yet to activate them for field use, per the memo. 

Security Forces units should follow Defense Logistics Agency guidance to dispose of the cameras properly. The agency oversees the purchase of equipment for the armed forces. It’s unclear if the Air Force units would be forced to destroy the body cameras, or could sell them as surplus.

Earlier this year, Reuters reported that other agencies are likely to adopt body cameras for law enforcement personnel. 

While laws or regulations vary by state, progressive organizations have lobbied for the tool for increased transparency between officers and the general public they serve. 

The news outlet, citing a 2020 report by the National Police Foundation that culminated 10 years of statistical data, said officers who wear body cameras have fewer complaints filed against them, improving relations with communities. A University of Chicago Crime Lab study similarly backed up that claim, according to NPR

Reviews are mixed, however, as human rights and civil rights groups say the increased use of these recording devices raises privacy issues for already marginalized communities.

In an Op-Ed published by Nextgov, Bryce Newell, assistant professor of media law and policy at the University of Oregon, argued privacy can be maintained if agencies strive to conceal identifying characteristics of suspects, victims or bystanders while showing the public the incident which occurred. 

“There are potential social costs to deploying body-worn cameras, including possible invasions of privacy when sensitive moments are recorded or made public, and increasing police surveillance of communities already subjected to heightened police attention,” Newell wrote in May. 

That said, if there is enough “careful attention to existing laws and policies, including public records laws” that supplement body-camera application, it “can help minimize harm to the public while increasing the transparency of police work,” Newell wrote.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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