Police, camera, action

Photo: Metropolitan Police

Photo: Metropolitan Police

The view along the pistol barrel is oddly familiar. The gun itself is pointed at the driver’s door on a parked car. In the foreground we can see two clasped hands around the handle. Barked orders demand that the driver show his hands and exit the vehicle. It all looks rather like a first-person-shooter computer game. But this is footage taken from a body-worn video (BWV) camera clipped to the uniform of a police officer in Rialto, California. The gun never fires, but if it had, the footage would have provided crucial evidence of what happened before, and in the aftermath. BWV could soon be commonplace in the US, UK and other countries, and has received broad support from the police and civil liberties groups. But it represents a fundamental shift in the way we are policed, and could have a significant effect on the way we behave.

In April, Staffordshire Police became the first constabulary to issue the equipment to all officers. A month later, 500 Metropolitan Police (Met) officers across London were fitted with BWV in the most wide-ranging study conducted by the force (at £815,000, it’s being touted as the world’s biggest). Smaller-scale trials have already been conducted, with less fanfare, across the UK: Devon and Cornwall Police were the first to use BWV in 2007. The Liberal Democrats in the UK have made it part of their manifesto that BWV be mandatory for armed police, riot squads or officers carrying out stop and search. The technology itself is relatively simple: the cameras used in the UK are about the size of a cigarette packet (imagine an iPhone on auto-record attached to your chest pocket), and sit facing forward on the officer’s shoulder. In the US, the equipment can be small enough to fit onto a pair of sunglasses. But these compact and seemingly benign gadgets could have far-reaching implications for how policing works.

The use of BWV has been broadly welcomed by those campaigning for justice in cases where incidents involving the police have involved ambiguity. The words of senior Tory MP David Davis on the day of the Met rollout expressed a widely held sentiment. “If there’s a disputed event between the police and public there should be video evidence available and if it’s not there then there will be an assumption that it’s not been provided, that the police are culpable,” he said. Davis believes that two prominent cases could have been resolved without ambiguity had BWV been in use: the ‘Plebgate’ case, in which MP Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling a police officer the pejorative term ‘pleb’ outside Downing Street; and the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan in 2011 by armed police in Tottenham, an incident that sparked riots across London.

“Plebgate is the obvious case,” said Davis. “Had it been recorded then the dispute wouldn’t exist. We wouldn’t be arguing about who said what.” The Duggan family have stated that BWV might have shed light on whether Mark was carrying a gun at the time he was shot. Met commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe seemed to agree, saying: “There was a great dispute about what [Duggan] was holding at the time he was shot, and this hopefully would have helped to resolve that.”

In McKinney, Texas, a police officer was placed on administrative leave in June 2015 after a video emerged in which he forced an unarmed, black teenage girl to the ground at a pool party. Photo: YouTube

In McKinney, Texas, a police officer was placed on administrative leave in June 2015 after a video emerged in which he forced an unarmed, black teenage girl to the ground at a pool party. Photo: YouTube

The indications so far are that BWV can have a dramatic impact. The study in Rialto (population 100,000) ran from February 2012 to July 2013. Half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers were randomly assigned the cameras each week – enough visibility over a long enough time period for members of the public to be aware of their existence (particularly those who frequently came into contact with the law). The results were dramatic – as well as an 88 percent drop in complaints against officers, there was a 60 percent drop in the number of times police used force to resolve an incident. And, fascinatingly, when force was used, it was twice as likely to be employed by an officer who wasn’t wearing a camera at the time.

While there are obvious uses for BWV footage as evidence in criminal cases, it’s this deterrent effect of the cameras which is driving adoption. The Rialto study – co-authored by police Chief Tony Farrar and Dr Barak Ariel of Cambridge University – explored the idea that human beings (and indeed many other species) alter their behaviour when they’re aware that they’re being watched, usually to conform to social norms. That is, we’re more likely to do something bad when we don’t think anyone can see us. The more prominent the fact of being watched is, the stronger the urge to conform becomes – which is why, the study’s authors argue, the close-up lens of a prominent BWV camera is far more potent than omnipresent but distant CCTV.

It’s an idea with unavoidable Orwellian overtones – people behave when they’re being watched, so let’s make sure they’re watched all the time. It’s pernicious logic. The traditional model of policing is that it is only acceptable to start to gather evidence on citizens once there is evidence of wrongdoing. With BWV, the idea is that evidence is being gathered in case a crime is committed, or in order to change people’s behaviour. There are two problems here. One is that it is inevitable that people will be recorded who have never committed (or were going to commit) a crime. The second is that while the authorities might argue that BWV merely encourages people in the lens not to break the law, it can equally be argued that the sight of the camera might actually intimidate citizens into an unnecessary level of docility. Being filmed by the law carries with it an implicit threat (and one that has historically been exploited by plenty of police states).

London's Metropolitan Police started a year-long trial with body-worn cameras in May 2014, distributing 500 cameras to 10 London boroughs. Photo: Metropolitan Police

London’s Metropolitan Police started a year-long trial with body-worn cameras in May 2014, distributing 500 cameras to 10 London boroughs. Photo: Metropolitan Police

But even civil liberties groups have cautiously welcomed BWV. The real sticking points are around the practical implementation. “We always say that we don’t think this [police officers wearing cameras] is a blanket bad thing,” says Dan Nesbitt, a researcher for the civil liberties and privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “But we do have concerns about how [BWV] is used.” A key question is when exactly the cameras will be rolling. “We don’t believe the cameras should be recording continuously,” says Nesbitt. “The police officer should always state that they are initiating recording, because that way the member of the public has time to actually modify their behaviour.”

In an effort to deal with these privacy concerns (as well as the technical issues with powering the device and storing the footage), police BWV in the UK will not be recording all the time. But that raises the issue of when the ‘on’ button is pushed. A camera activity halfway through an altercation could give a dramatically different picture to one that was activated earlier on. Police officers wearing BWV are supposed to hit record “any time they would normally make a pocket notebook entry”. In some instances this will be clear-cut, but if officers are arriving at an incident at speed, or if they are dealing with a series of incidents – a public disturbance, for example – the pocket book analogy may not be practical.

Technology may provide some solutions. One camera produced by Taser in the US employs “pre-event video buffering”. Even when turned off, the camera is continuously recording the most recent 30 seconds of audio only. So when an officer hits the on button, the moments before he or she does so are also captured – providing context if the footage is used as evidence.

Over recent years the police have found themselves engaged in a kind of video arms race with civilians”

A second contentious issue is how and where the BWV data is stored, and who can access it. In the Met trial, all the footage stored on the cameras will be uploaded to a cloud storage database at the end of each day, and unless it is deemed to be evidence for conviction, it will be wiped after 31 days. “There should be clear guidelines on where the information that’s been recorded is stored, how long it’s stored for, and who can access it,” says Nesbitt. “We would definitely recommend having an external organisation that holds the recordings, because it would be inappropriate for officers themselves to access the recordings – especially if the officer in question is on that recording.” If an officer ends a shift and returns to the station knowing that there is incriminating evidence against them from the camera they’ve been wearing, how could they not be tempted to make that evidence go away?

The trial by the Met is intended to raise all of these issues for discussion and clarification, but – as the Staffordshire roll-out shows – the fact is that BWV is already on the streets. Part of the reason why authorities are now pushing for this new technology is because over recent years the police have  found themselves engaged in a kind of video arms race with civilians. Police misconduct caught on camera dates back to the beating of Rodney King in 1991 which led to the LA riots, but the ubiquity of video-enabled smartphones in recent years has meant that officers are increasingly arriving at incidents and finding themselves immediately being filmed. Occasionally this footage has resulted in court cases against the police – as with the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 summit protests in 2011, footage of which was captured by a member of the public and published by The Guardian. It’s understandable in these circumstances that the police would want their own video evidence during violent  confrontations.


Police misconduct caught on camera includes the beating of Rodney King in 1991 which led to the LA riots

The findings from the Met trial will be released in autumn 2015, and will provide an unprecedented insight into what effect BWV has on policing in a major metropolis. But by then, we may well already have seen cases in which video evidence has proved decisive in the courts, as well as suspects who have pleaded guilty simply because they know that they were caught on film. And more significantly, as we become more aware of these tiny gadgets clipped to police uniforms, we may start to change our behaviour. Faced with the knowledge that our actions are being captured for posterity, will we start to self-censor beyond simply complying with the law? And will the committed criminals that BWV is intended to dissuade from confronting police learn how to play up to the cameras to limit their effect?

There is no doubt that BWV can have a significant effect on encounters between police and citizens. This will be an experiment with unknown outcomes, run in the real world.

The next time you find yourself talking to a police officer, remember to smile.

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