Q&A: Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Bill Seeks to Limit Use of Police Cameras

By Mukund Rathi 

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., introduced the Federal Police Camera and Accountability Act in June 2019.

It was incorporated into the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that recently passed the House of Representatives.

The bill regulates federal law-enforcement’s use of body and dashboard cameras.

Generally, it requires them to activate cameras when interacting with the public and to disclose videos on appropriate requests.

The legislation would affect the more than 30 federal law-enforcement agencies working in Washington.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C.

Age: 83.

Birthplace: Washington, D.C.

Education: Antioch College (BA), Yale University (MA, LLB).

First Elected to House: 1991.

Key Committees: Oversight and Reform, Transportation and Infrastructure.

Previous Political Service: Chair, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, May 1977 to February 1981.

Personal: Widowed, two children.

Holmes Norton has represented the District of Columbia in the U.S. House of Representatives, as a nonvoting member, since 1991.

She is a tenured law professor at Georgetown University and was the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As a student and lawyer, Holmes Norton was active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Holmes Norton told Digital Privacy News that by requiring and regulating the use of police cameras, her bill would address police misconduct while respecting privacy rights.

Why did you introduce the police camera bill?

I found it amazing that we had not, before, made sure that body cameras and dashboard cameras were used by federal police. 

Why should they be used by federal police?

They are used ubiquitously by state and local police around the United States, in red states and blue states, because they have been found useful both for police and for people in cars.

It eliminates some of the “he said-she said.”

Police body cameras eliminate “some of the ‘he said-she said.’ You have a record.”

You have a record — and, thus, you find many police are also for recordings, which settle these disputes.

Why was your bill incorporated into the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act?

This was something I requested.

I had tried to get this bill passed as a standalone bill.

I regard this as one of the most important parts of the Justice in Policing Act, because it’s something the federal government can do.

Much of what we did encourages the states (to make reforms). We do things like banning chokeholds, but policing is a local matter.

The federal government is limited in what it can do in local matters. But this is something it certainly can do, with respect to federal police.

Here in the nation’s capital, where many federal police agencies are a part of everyday life, we see that it is important that federal police — not only here, of course, but throughout the country — are held to the same standards and get to use the same kinds of equipment as local police.

Do you think your bill can now make it through the Senate and be signed by the president?

I do.

The Policing Act itself is being held up because the Senate could not agree upon a bill. They are really stuck.

“We don’t want to have cameras on people except where necessary.”

We are waiting to have a bill to match our bill — or a bill that would allow us to go to conference.

Can the Senate produce a bill that includes similar provisions on body cameras and dashboard cameras?

We are near the end of the congressional period.

The polls show — and polls can change — that there’s a very good chance that Democrats could control the Senate after November 2020, and even the presidency — even more likely.

I am hopeful about this bill, if not next month … then shortly thereafter.

Your bill has several provisions instructing officers to stop recording “as soon as practicable” in certain situations. This includes when an apparent crime victim asks an officer to do so. Why?

We are aware of privacy notions that are deeply rooted in American life.

We don’t want to have cameras on people except where necessary.

And, these are traffic cameras. These are not cameras aimed at recording people in any broader way than that.

Your legislation bars police from activating body cameras on school grounds. Why? To protect minors?

Yes. We’re trying to limit the use of cameras.

This is a society — which, at first, didn’t want cameras at all.

“We are aware of privacy notions that are deeply rooted in American life.”

Now, we have cameras everywhere. We have cameras on lampposts, cameras that record us in traffic, when you stop and when you start.

We’re not trying to increase the use of cameras. We want cameras to be used for very specific and limited purposes.

That’s difficult to do, we understand, once you provide police with cameras at all.

But we’ve tried to circumscribe those uses.

One aspect of your bill that’s fairly unique is that it bans facial recognition both on the cameras and on any video that’s recorded. Why?

That comes from the fact that videos have become more common. It would not do much good to ban facial recognition on the cameras and not on the videos.

What other new technology is law enforcement using? How does your bill address those developments?

Voice recognition is already being used by the FBI, but our bill does not ban all biometric surveillance.

That’s the kind of thing I’m looking at now.

What we’re finding is that technology evolves so rapidly that you write a bill — and if it has anything to do with technology — you will have a hard time keeping up.

One of the things we’ve already found out is something we should have recognized: The FBI is using voice recognition — and our bill does not deal with that.

We are trying to find if there’s a way to clarify the use of voice recognition by third parties generally.

That’s something that had not been brought to my attention.

“We’re trying to limit the use of cameras.”

We are willing to strengthen this bill as new technologies and new issues arise.

In the Senate, there is no body-camera legislation in their bill — and I am concerned about that.

Do you hope to have provisions on voice recognition in the bill before it’s passed?

I certainly do. All biometric surveillance raises privacy concerns.

So, I am interested in strengthening this bill.

Voice recognition is becoming more widely used. At the time this bill was put in, it was not nearly as widely used.

Now, all kinds of biometrics — face recognition — are being used. I mentioned third-party use.

There are ways in which this bill could be strengthened.

I am looking at biometric surveillance generally for a new bill.

Mukund Rathi is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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