Police body worn cameras – let’s tread carefully

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Related Theme: Digital technology

Police body worn cameras – let’s tread carefully

David Davis’ article in yesterday’s Times has kicked off a debate about the potential to use cameras on police officers to provide a record of their contact with the public. While Davis’ intervention was directly linked to plebgate’, these cameras are already being used extensively and there is a much broader interest in this issue.

One study is frequently cited in support of using body worn cameras’, based on a trial of their use in Rialto in California. The outcomes were positive a substantial reduction in the number of complaints and the use of force by officers but the numbers were small and it can’t be assumed that it would transfer to the UK context. More research is therefore necessary and some is already in the pipeline. The University of Portsmouth is conducting an evaluation of the use of body worn cameras in Hampshire, while the College of Policing is also planning a more comprehensive study. Meanwhile a number of forces are piloting them and they are being rolled out to every officer and PCSO in Staffordshire.

The potential advantages of using these cameras are clear, if largely untested. They can provide evidence that can help to secure convictions and to persuade suspects to plead guilty earlier. Cameras can also protect the police from vexatious complaints and deter people from committing crimes against police officers, as has been the case in Germany where they are thought to have been successful in reducing the number of alcohol-related assaults on officers policing the night time economy. Cameras could encourage officers to improve the standard of their contact with the public, while footage could also be used to support police training in interpersonal communication and de-escalation techniques. Cameras could also provide evidence of police wrongdoing where it occurs. Would the true circumstances surrounding the death of Ian Tomlinson, for example, have come to light more quickly if all officers had been wearing cameras? Could footage be used to verify complaints about the conduct of stop and search?

But there are problems too. If the cameras are on all the time which is not allowed under current Home Office guidance then there are significant implications for privacy and civil liberties that need to be thought through. If they are not, then there is a risk that controversial incidents will not be caught on camera, either by accident or design. The infrastructure and proper processes to store, manage and delete the data would need to be developed, while steps would need to be taken to ensure that sensitive, private information is not accessible via Freedom of Information requests. And it would all need to be paid for at a time when funding is extremely tight. More fundamentally, cameras could stultify the informal nature of much of the police’s contact with the public, compromising the flow of vital local intelligence.

Many of these issues are complex and need further debate. Much more consideration about when and how cameras should be used is required to ensure that the public and the police understand the real implications. Should members of the public have the right to refuse to be filmed? Could evidence from victims captured on video be used against their will? Would officers struggle to interact informally with the public if they knew they were being recorded? Forces must be cautious and recognise that there are real questions that need to be answered before there’s a rush to put a camera on every cop.