Police Body Worn Cameras

December 14, 2016

Police Body Cameras: an evidence gathering tool or an extension of police surveillance?

The Metropolitan Police Service announced in October 2016 that over the next coming months more than 22,000 Met Officers will be issued with Body-Worn Cameras, known as BWVs.

The MPS and other police forces have marketed BWVs as a significant benefit to the criminal justice system. However, their use as an evidence gathering tool for criminal proceedings has been overstated. Their effectiveness at monitoring police behaviour is far greater, however potential problems as to the way in which police officers may operate them should not be ignored.

BWVs raise serious concerns over their impact upon civilian privacy. It may be more apt to view this technological development as an extension of police surveillance. Given the threat to privacy which BWVs pose, if they are to be used, only specific units, such as the TSG and the Specialist Firearms Command, should be equipped with cameras which are continuously recording, with a set of clear and sensible rules for the operation and storage of footage.

How they work

BWVs are not entirely new. They have been trialled by police forces in the UK and in the US in recent years. The UK body camera market is largely monopolised by companies Reveal and Taser International, who produce the cameras. The Metropolitan Police Force has opted for the Axon cameras produced by Taser International, whereas Surrey Police and Thames Valley have invested in the Reveal cameras.

The cameras are attached to the front of the uniform of a police officer, often on the shoulder. The camera is small in size with a clip to attach to the uniform. The camera therefore captures what can be seen by the officer face-on. It generally cannot capture their hand or feet movement.

BWVs do not permanently record, although they do have the capacity to do so. The Axon camera can store around up to 70 hours’ worth of footage and has a 12 hour battery. A police officer has the control to turn a camera on and off by using a switch. Axon cameras have a buffering capability which records 30 seconds prior to the officer turning on the camera. The decision when to record therefore lies with the police officer. The footage captured on cameras are marketed as not being erasable from the unit.

On the Axon camera, there are two modes; online and offline. In the online mode the footage from the camera is automatically stored on the digital evidence management system. In the offline mode, the footage is manually downloaded from the camera and then stored.

Police conduct

One of the positive uses of BWVs could be to provide an effective check on police conduct, capturing police officers’ behaviour in their day-to-day policing. The visual monitoring of policing might deter an array of police misconduct, including excessive use of force by police officers during arrests, unlawful stop and searches founded on racial discrimination and so on.

The Rialto study produced in the United States in 2012 showed that when body cameras are used, police officers are less likely to use force on civilians. Research published in the Criminal Justice and Behaviour journal in 2016 found that UK police officers equipped with BWVs received 93% fewer complaints from the public. Whilst this figure is of course substantial, it should be noted that the conditions of this experiment were different to how BWVs will be routinely used by officers: cameras were on and recording throughout encounters with the public and officers did not have control over when the camera began filming

Whilst some commentators have opted to explain this decrease as evidence of BWVs dissuading violence and malicious complaints against police officers, it is likely that the figures are also down to officers adhering to the policing codes and policing in a more conscious manner.

No doubt effectiveness of BWVs in relation to monitoring police conduct would be enhanced if the cameras were always recording, taking the control of when and what to record away from the officers.

A tool for evidence gathering

Police forces have opted to focus on BWVs being a tool for evidence gathering in criminal investigations.

In announcing the rolling out of thousands of BWVs to Met Officers, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe stated that “our experience of using cameras already shows that people are more likely to plead guilty when they know we have captured the incident on a camera. That then speeds up justice, puts offenders behind bars more quickly and most importantly protects potential victims.” Whilst the police focus on BWVs as a way of getting more convictions, they also have the potential to assist individuals. In criminal proceedings consisting of an individual’s account against an officer’s, BWVs may provide a more objective viewpoint and may serve to support the Defendant. This may be particularly helpful in ‘assault PC cases’ in the Magistrates’ Court, in which it is often difficult to persuade the court that the Defendant’s account is the right one. However BWVs are only of real benefit to a criminal case where it captures the offence. This will therefore only benefit a small minority of cases where a police officer witnesses an offence and has their camera switched on to capture this.

My own recent experiences in representing clients in criminal proceedings have raised question marks over how BWV evidence is used. Tuckers Solicitors are currently representing a man who is the subject of criminal proceedings at Canterbury Crown Court. His arrest at home was captured by an officer wearing a Body Camera. The footage captures the officers entering the man’s home and informing him that he is under arrest. The camera is then turned off. Footage then jumps to him being taken in handcuffs to the police van, where officers can be heard to tell him that he ‘kicked out’ at an officer. The assault is alleged to have happened shortly before the camera was turned on. The footage is then turned off again. Whilst the footage could not prove that an assault had taken place on the officer, having video footage of the accusation being made does nothing to help his case. Statements from officers referred to more BWVs having been worn by officers and at different times. Their existence at trial was however denied. The only recourse available to a Defendant to counter this unfairness in these scenarios is the making of section 78 applications to exclude the evidence. Success however is far from guaranteed.

Actions Against the Police lawyers will be well used to the disappearance of custody suite CCTV and dashboard footage. Recent practical experience shows that BWV footage may be no different. Greater concerns surround BWVs because of the control individual police officers have as to the operation of the cameras and the potential for these recordings to be manipulated.

Surveillance and Privacy

The UK is the world leader in the use of surveillance cameras. There is an approximate ratio of 14 cameras to one civilian. The average Londoner is captured on CCTV up to 300 times a day. BWVs are therefore a new addition to state surveillance.

BWVs are potentially more intrusive than CCTV as they can go where CCTV cannot. BWVs can capture footage from private property, including homes and places of work. Wherever an officer can go, footage can be obtained. An officer entering a home to make an arrest or search the premises can record all of this on a camera.

It may be possible to use facial recognition technology on the images which are captured by the cameras. If cameras could be combined with face recognition then there is no reason why the police could not use footage obtained by Body Cameras to track and monitor individuals of interest to them. This could lead to an exceptionally intrusive level of policing. BWVs cannot become an extension of the UK surveillance system already in place. There needs to be clear police policy on the prohibition of covert filming, the length of time footage obtained is held by the police and for what purpose it is held for. When officers have their cameras on in public, members of the public should be given notice that their cameras are filming.

BWVs could be used by the police as an intelligence gathering tool. The police have a history of gathering and retaining information on political activists, campaigners, trade unionists, politicians and so on. At present, policy does little to prevent footage obtained from BWVs from being stored for the purpose of intelligence gathering.

Large numbers of Met police officers wearing Body Cameras have already been seen at recent demonstrations, including the student demonstration held on 19th November in London. We already know that video footage of people attending protests are obtained by the police, as part of their overt surveillance, and are subsequently stored on police databases. BWVs could be an extension of this practice.

Policy for the future

BWVs pose a real threat to privacy. Present guidance is too flexible to allay these concerns. Whilst studies do show that officers with Body Cameras are less likely to use excessive force, the potential risk to privacy far outweighs the potential benefits of all officers being equipped with BWVs.

If body cameras are going to be used by the police, only specific units should be issued with them. These should include units which are equipped with firearms and have been the subject of criticism because of the use of force they have deployed on civilians. This would include the TSG and Specialist Firearms Command.

A policy that required these officers to have their cameras always on would ensure greater transparency and would reduce the ability of officers to manipulate footage. Officers would not have the power to choose what they recorded. There have long been reported instances in the United States press where body cameras were not turned on prior to serious instances, including the shooting of its citizens. Sometimes this was excused by ‘technical glitches’ with turning on the cameras. Other times it was down to human error in not turning them on. Continual filming would be a solution to these instances and therefore instil greater confidence in their use.

Cameras should always be switched off during routine and non-adversarial instances. People should be informed that they are being filmed and be given a police caution specific to filming.

Policy should make it clear that BWVs are not to be used to covertly film people. They have no place at political demonstrations.

By Emily-Jade Girvan


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