Body worn cameras could lead to fewer complaints and reduced assaults

police-body-cameras.jpgGreater accountability and a rising tide of assaults on our members have been the conversation of the past ten years. In policing issues affecting frontline gardaí these have been the big two causes of stress and consternation; and well documented across the public sphere. Being subject to investigation when you don’t actually know who has accused you and what you have been accused of has been examined in works of literature for the psychological distress it causes. Many of our members also carry the physical and mental scarring from assaults; and while members have been issued with some protective equipment we await specific legal protection. Assaults should never be accepted as an occupational hazard.

Around the world, the use of body worn video by police officers is being examined – weighing up the costs and benefits. It’s not clear-cut. Yet. Initial studies suggest that the number of vexatious complaints can be hugely reduced, and the complaints procedure can be speeded up – building trust and public confidence. Its use also suggests the reduction in both the number of assaults and the use of force; it professionalises officer behaviour and can provide compelling evidence in court – further encouraging early guilty pleas. It has been widely commended for its role in prosecutions in cases of domestic violence.

But there are costs as well as benefits. There is an initial expenditure required that includes training for officers, and the storage of all material must be handled as evidence. Any disclosure of material and loss of data protection can be expensive. Also, the technology needs to be constantly upgraded. With this ‘digital hindsight’ – and the ‘garda’s independent witness’ comes the need for tight controls and protocols. The evidence given by a garda must take account of the psychological function of ‘perception distortion’ that occurs when the heart is pumping and adrenaline is flowing. Also, the viewpoint makes it only a part of the evidence gathering process.

To wear a camera into someone’s home can be an invasion of privacy, and this can have cultural issues. While it may act as a memory aid, it may also require the loss of garda discretion – depending upon supervision. Does recorded material have to be retained until a statute of limitation has expired for potential complaints? Huge storage and archiving would be required. What if the equipment isn’t turned on or fails? This could cause a lack of confidence in the process and procedures. Protocols and procedures could overcome these pitfalls – along with training, efficient supervision and back office support to view and store any footage.

There has been a worldwide surge in the adoption of body worn cameras by police agencies – and in attracting media attention. Technological advances and innovations may supply a solution; though a debate needs to be had before any introduction into our culture. For many police officers in other jurisdictions, body worn video has become regarded as the best piece of kit they have ever been issued; but without protocols and protections its use could have detrimental consequences.

The technology to enable every member of the Force with continual recording from a small camera worn on the anti-stab vest or jacket is now affordable; but will require a change in legislation to make this universal. But should that legislation be brought before the Dáil; it must include the protections and protocols involved in this ‘accountability challenge’.

“Body worn video is, in effect, a form of available digital hindsight. If used with openness and transparency it could show the public policing for what it is – and the daily challenges our members face. With protections for our members and the public, it has the potential to become a crucial tool to secure convictions, prevent assaults and reduce complaints.”

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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