Lights, camera, action

nola_police_glassesBody cameras are the new secret weapon of police and they may be coming to a garda station near you soon, writes Robert Block.

Robert blockThe role of the modern police officer is fraught with many difficulties. Whilst public support for the gardaí remains positive there will always be the possibility of mistrust of the Force arising due to the occurrence of a serious incident where a member of the public is actually or allegedly mistreated by an officer on duty.

We only have to look back to the shooting of Mark Duggan in London in 2011 and remember how that incident spilled over into days of rioting in one of the world’s largest cities. Harsh (or even violent) public reaction to the exercise of police authority can arise where details relating to a particular incident are not dealt with in an open and transparent manner. One potential method of countering this lack of transparency has been the introduction of ‘body cameras’ by several police forces around the world. As we shall see, these cameras not only record the way members of the police interact with the public, thus supporting any claims of abuse of authority, they may also provide a defence in situations where such accusations are unfounded.

‘Body cameras’ or, to be more technical, ‘Body Worn Video’ are small portable digital recording devices that can be worn either attached to the chest or on a cap or helmet. Equipped to record both images and sound they are intended to provide an officer’s eye view of how they handle the situations that might arise on a day to day basis. The AXON type body camera, as introduced by the Metropolitan Police on a trial basis this year, works by recording a continual 30 second loop of images and audio with a 130 degree field of view and a 12 hour battery life. The data can be later downloaded and stored for one month.

Whilst they can run for the duration of an officer’s shift, for the purposes of the trial the Met has decided that the cameras will not be switched on all the time and requires officers to use them in accordance with strict guidelines. The Met has been working on the introduction of this technology for a number of years and has a strong belief in the benefits it brings to modern policing.

“It would be essential to have strict regulations relating to the operation of the cameras and the storage of the data they record…”

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has been quoted as saying that the use of such cameras has encouraged suspects to plead guilty where they knew that they had been recorded. He also said that such recordings were of great benefit to situations which would be hard to describe in written form, giving the example of a frightened child in a situation of domestic violence.

While this technology is still quite new it has already had a significant impact on both the numbers of complaints about the police and a decrease in the use of force by officers. It has also recently been a central consideration in a claim in California about whether the police used excessive force in carrying out an arrest following a traffic offence. It was alleged that the driver of a car which had been pulled over for speeding assaulted one of the arresting officers by grabbing at and trying to pull off his hi-visibility vest. The driver of the car alleges that she was merely moving the vest as it covered up the officer’s identity badge and that she had the right to know his name. The recording of the incident, which has been posted to YouTube, shows the removal of the woman from the car and her being restrained. The clip is clear and has good audio and would be of great benefit to any authority that has to determine whether the actions of the arresting officer were justified.

The potential for the use of video of this type to speed up the process of deciding whether a complaint has merit is undoubted, not to mention the potential cost savings to police ombudsmen or other such investigative bodies in having access to clear and unbiased evidence relating to the subject matter of the complaint they are scrutinising.

However, it must be noted that the use of body cameras has attracted its fair share of criticism. When they were initially introduced in some municipalities in California there was significant resistance from officers who resented a ‘big brother’ style system watching their every move. There has also been much criticism of the use of such technology by civil liberties groups in the US, notably the ACLU, who believe that it constitutes a form of governmental intrusion into public freedom. Another concern is the potential for misuse or tampering of recordings and there have been calls to strictly limit the time periods relating to the storage of the data gathered by the cameras.

It is interesting to note, however, that the same bodies that oppose police use of such technology actively support the public making recordings of police activities – overlooking the necessity for balance in the administration of justice.

If body cameras were to be supplied to the gardaí it is undoubtedly the case that similar concerns would be raised. Thus, it would be essential to have strict regulations relating to the operation of the cameras and the storage of the data they record, possibly even going as far as necessitating the introduction of specific legislation controlling their use.

In the context of Irish policing and the potential introduction of body cameras amongst the gardaí, such recordings, in conjunction with written or oral statements may also be of great benefit in court in numerous situations, not least of which would be the prosecution of public order offences. It is frequently denied by the accused in such proceedings that they were disorderly, drunk or behaving in an anti-social manner. Video evidence of the events in question and the behaviour of the accused would enhance the court’s ability to determine the truth of the matter.

However, caution must be exercised wherever new technological innovations are concerned. The work of the gardaí is fluid and constantly changing. Body cameras and other such digital recording technology must be viewed in the same way as CCTV; it assists in the investigation of crimes but it can never replace the need for the officer on the scene asking the right questions and exercising their best judgement.

Perhaps the most positive aspect of body cameras is that they help to protect the wearer and those captured on the recordings. We live in a society that, quite correctly, demands transparency and accountability from our public authorities. The use of body cameras can achieve this by recording how gardaí interact with the public and showing where members of the Force have misbehaved or failed to follow appropriate protocols. They can also help to defend against false claims of mistreatment that are all too frequently levelled against the Force.

Once public trust in such new technology has grown it may well be the case that far from being viewed with ‘big brother’ mistrust, body cameras may come to be seen as both a guarantor of public freedom and an effective tool in maintaining the already high standards of policing within the gardaí. 

Robert Block is a practising barrister.

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

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