Policing Reform Bill Would Prohibit Embedding Facial Recognition in Body Cameras

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The Justice in Policing Act contains several restrictions on the use of facial biometric technologies for federal, state and local law enforcement.

In the midst of ongoing, historic protests occurring across the nation in part over police brutality and use of lethal force against unarmed civilians, four congressional Democrats introduced a law enforcement reform bill that would require federal, state and local officers to wear body cameras but restrict the use of facial recognition technology.

The Justice in Policing Act of 2020—introduced Monday by Reps. Karen Bass, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., chair of the House Judiciary Committee; and former Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.—includes large-scale reforms to police accountability and the use of force.

"What we are witnessing is the birth of a new movement in our country with thousands coming together in every state marching to demand a change that ends police brutality, holds police officers accountable, and calls for transparency,” Bass said in a statement introducing the legislation. “For over 100 years, Black communities in America have sadly been marching against police abuse and calling for the police to protect and serve them as they do others. Today we unveil the Justice in Policing Act, which will establish a bold transformative vision of policing in America.”

But the legislation also hones in on the use of recording equipment—including body-worn and in-vehicle cameras—with the goal of protecting citizens’ bodies as well as their privacy.

One of the key provisions of the bill would require all “uniformed officers with the authority to conduct searches and make arrests [to] wear a body camera,” in order to record potential wrongdoing and resolve any disputes about police interactions. However, lawmakers did not want this protection to become a means of police overreach.

“Body cameras shall not be used to gather intelligence information based on First Amendment protected speech, associations, or religion, or to record activity that is unrelated to a response to a call for service or a law enforcement or investigative encounter between a law enforcement officer and a member of the public, and shall not be equipped with or subjected to any real time facial recognition technologies,” the bill states.

While the bill prohibits real-time, embedded facial recognition software, footage recorded through body cameras can be run through facial recognition programs at a later time, so long as officers obtain a warrant specifying the “precise video recording to which the authorization applies” and the court finds there is “probable cause to believe that the requested use of facial recognition is relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

The legislation puts similar restrictions on the use of facial recognition in in-car cameras and the footage recorded using those devices.

A separate clause later in the legislation reaffirms these restrictions on the use of facial recognition in body cams, this time with regard to grant funding.

“An entity receiving a grant under this section shall … develop with community input and publish for public view policies and protocols for … protecting the constitutional rights of any individual on whom facial recognition technology is used … [and] limitations on the use of body-worn cameras in conjunction with facial recognition technology,” the legislation reads.

Those limitations on biometrics-enabled body cameras should include:

  • The use of facial recognition technology only with judicial authorization.
  • The use of facial recognition technology only for imminent threats or serious crimes.
  • The use of facial recognition technology with double verification of identified faces.

This section also requires the director of the Justice Department’s Office of Audit, Assessment and Management to conduct a broad-ranging study on the use of body cameras, to include “issues relating to the constitutional rights of individuals on whom facial recognition technology is used” and “issues relating to limitations on the use of facial recognition technology,” among other issues.

In the statement introducing the bill, Booker noted it is the first “comprehensive approach to ending police brutality” in congressional history.

“On the back-end, the bill fixes our federal laws so law enforcement officers are held accountable for egregious misconduct and police abuses are better tracked and reported,” he said. “And on the front-end, the bill improves police practices and training to prevent these injustices from happening in the first place.”

The legislation currently has the support of 35 senators and 166 representatives but does not have a single Republican cosponsor in either chamber.