Some students concerned about privacy as University of Utah police start wearing bodycams

The group Unsafe U is worried about the campus department indefinitely keeping recordings.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police cars sit in the parking lot of the University of Utah. The police department announced Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, that officers will get body cameras.

After years of scrutiny following the on-campus murder of Lauren McCluskey and persistent personnel issues with the police department since then, the University of Utah says that it wants to take a step toward improving accountability with its officers.

The school believes that will come through body cameras.

The campus police department announced Monday that its officers started wearing body cameras last month as an effort to rebuild public trust going forward. The cameras are turned on, said Jason Hinojosa, the acting police chief, whenever there is an interaction with a student, staff member or visitor to the U. — including traffic stops or responding to a crime.

“We want to be transparent in all our dealings with the community on campus, and the body-worn cameras are going to be a major part of that,” Hinojosa said in a statement.

The school has drafted an interim rule spelling out guidelines for using the cameras as the program is already underway. A final set of guidelines, though, will still need to be approved by the school’s academic senate.

Right now, the rule states: “Cameras must be recording at all times when the officer is in uniform and is responding to calls for service or engaged in any law enforcement-related encounter or activity.”

Bodycams are standard practice for police departments across the country, but they’re relatively new on college campuses. That’s because there are student protection and privacy questions at play.

Will students be filmed without their permission? Is that legal? Do students have a right not to be on video? What if they’re reporting a sensitive crime, like a sexual assault?

The U. acknowledged some of those concerns in its statements Monday, though it said that according to federal law the cameras are exempt from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, that safeguards student privacy.

That means students’ faces can be captured in the footage.

“We want to clarify that officers will not be recording citizen contacts, such as special events or a community outreach activity,” Hinojosa added. “Body-worn cameras will be utilized primarily to document incident responses, and recordings will be stored in a secured, cloud-based system. Only the officer who recorded the footage and their supervisors will be able to view the recordings, and a record of all viewings will be kept.”

(University of Utah) Pictured is a body camera that officers of the University of Utah's campus police department have been wearing since July.

The software has unlimited storage, Hinojosa said, and does not allow for officers to edit or delete footage. It’s secure, too, run by the company Axon. And all videos will be stored for at least 90 days as evidence, but maybe longer depending on the type of incident. For aggravated assaults, for instance, it’s indefinite.

Unsafe U, a student group that has pushed for police reform at the school in response to how McCluskey’s case was mishandled, put out its own statement about possible issues raised by taking video footage of interactions on campus. Most of the group’s points are related to privacy.

Its leaders question keeping videos of rape and sexual assault victims from “their most vulnerable moments” when they’re reporting what happened. And they say that may deter people from coming forward.

That could also include those from communities of color or those who identify as LGBTQ, who may already be reluctant to interact with police, they said.

Additionally, Axon has been studying “predictive policing” by using videos of police interactions in its cloud. The program is designed to predict when a crime may occur based on a person’s attributes. Unsafe U said that raises “significant ethical concerns” about data sharing and abuse.

The group is asking for the U.’s policy to be revised to include blurring individuals’ faces, especially in connection with sensitive crimes, and for bystanders who may be caught incidentally in bodycam footage. They also suggest there should be clearer policies for how long the footage is kept and what can and can’t be recorded.

The school does note in a news release that an officer can “use their discretion” to stop recording when speaking to a victim of a sexual offense.

“For example, if a police officer is conducting a lethality assessment and believes that deactivation of the camera will encourage complete and accurate information sharing by the victim or it is otherwise necessary to protect the victim’s identity, they may do so,” the release states.

There are also places were “there is an expectation of privacy” that officers will not record, the school said, such as restrooms, locker rooms and the hospital — “unless there is reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed or the recording of the location is material to an investigation.” Faces will also be blurred in those videos before they are released to the public.

Unsafe U does support that there will be a regular review of the videos and that personal phones in the department can’t be used for evidence.

That issue arose when former Officer Miguel Deras pulled up explicit photos of McCluskey on his phone — which she had sent him as evidence of extortion — and showed them off to at least three male coworkers without a work-related reason.

McCluskey was killed in October 2018 by the man she was trying to warn officers about. But an independent review shows the department did little to look into her concerns.

Since then, both the newly hired police chief and chief safety officer brought in to overhaul the department have quit. Two officers were fired for not reporting Deras showing off the photos. And Deras, who had left the U. in September 2019, was fired from his new job with Logan police in northern Utah.

Unsafe U. said the body cameras could “help some feel higher levels of trust with UUPD by having video records of their interactions.” They have been calling for more transparency since McCluskey’s murder, though cameras weren’t part of their requests.

The campus police department is encouraging any students or faculty with input on the cameras to sent an email to safeu@utah.edu.