The camera does not lie

Gardaí have called for the protection afforded by body worn video in the context of assaults on members; limited deployment is on the way writes Brendan O’Connor.

The Commission on the Future of Policing recommended (in its 2018 report) that video recording devices or ‘body worn cameras’ be deployed by An Garda Síochána, finding; “modern policing organisations around the world have found that body cameras can help to improve front line capability with the accurate recording of incidents, expedite analysis, enhance situational awareness, and sometimes protect police from harm.”

The Garda Síochána (Digital Recording) Bill 2021 has now been brought to government – an important step in a process that will hopefully lead to the issue of cameras to operational gardaí. As is so often the case our members do not have access to technology or equipment which is standard issue to our counterparts in other countries. The availability of body worn cameras has the potential to enhance member safety, protect against malicious and vexatious complaints and gather better evidence to assist in the prosecution and, ultimately, the conviction of offenders.

The increasing levels of assault against gardaí are well documented with almost 1,000 members assaulted in 2020. Members, like many other victims of crime often express a frustration that penalties imposed on assailants are unduly lenient and do not reflect the severity of an attack. What body cameras do is allow the judges and juries to relive the experience of the assaulted officer from a unique viewpoint. The evidence lays bare the trauma and violence that may not be captured in the words of a statement or direct oral evidence. Realtime footage of an out-of-control violent assailant may be a far cry from the soft spoken, well dressed individual presented by a polished and well-choreographed defence. The camera, after all, does not lie – as long as the chain of evidence is properly processed and protected.

An independent complaints process is an accepted principle that underpins the Irish model of policing and is something that the Association has always embraced. It is inevitable that any such process has the potential to be misused or manipulated for nefarious reasons. Unfortunately, we have seen a number of incidents in recent years where individual members have been subjected to false allegations which have led to protracted investigation and even prosecution; only to subsequently be vindicated by the courts. Such incidents cause untold stress, reputational damage and can impact on the personal relationships and mental health of members affected. In many of these cases the presence of a body worn camera would have spared our members the distress and trauma caused by the process, if indisputable evidence were available from the outset. It is more important than ever that gardaí are afforded the opportunity to protect themselves given the apparent predication to suspend members on the foot of allegations, and in advance of an investigation of the circumstances.

As gardaí we approach the debate around body worn cameras from the perspective of protecting ourselves and colleagues; however, the benefits also extend to victims of crimes that gardaí investigate. As first responders, our members are often present at crime scenes in the immediate aftermath. The appropriate use of camera technology provides an impartial and clinical recollection of crime scenes, road traffic collisions and comments made by both victims and suspects. Such evidence is not subject to the same physiological and psychological factors that witness testimony can be influenced by – regarding the unreliability of the human cognitive functions, especially memory, in times of adrenaline and trauma.

There has been a significant increase in domestic violence recorded in Ireland during the Covid-19 pandemic. Domestic violence is a crime that has devastating consequences for victims and has traditionally presented significant challenges from an investigation and prosecution perspective. People under the influence or control of an abusive partner who are suffering psychological, physical and emotional trauma may not always follow up with a statement of complaint making the decision to prosecute or not a difficult one. In the past, police officers have used instant film cameras to record injuries visible at the scene; the police body worn camera has the potential to capture the aftermath of a domestic violence situation – including the demeanour and attitude of both victim and perpetrator and often the destruction or damage to property at the scene. In circumstances where a victim is under undue or inappropriate control of an aggressor the state can rely on the best evidence to vindicate their rights and initiate court proceedings. Police body worn camera potentially can afford protection to the most vulnerable victims of crime at risk in what should be the sanctuary of their own home.

Some of the concerns expressed by those who oppose the use of such cameras centre around issues of privacy – and the storage and use of footage recorded. Such concerns are entirely valid and need to be carefully considered. Those represented by the Garda Representative Association are members of a police service that polices with the consent of the Irish public and continues to enjoy a high level of public approval.

Any introduction of established technology that adds a layer of transparency to a style of policing that is subject to significant levels of oversight can only enhance the quality of service. CCTV is ever-present in the world we live in today; images and data are recorded and stored by private individuals, private corporations and state agencies required to comply with GDPR guidelines. While there will always be sensitivities around policing and security services recording and storing information and data relating to citizens, a clear policy document and set of procedures that ensure compliance with individual rights and GDPR should allay any fears. There will also be issues around the privacy of gardaí using the equipment and their use cannot be allowed to be used as an invasive supervisory function.

Other concerns that have been raised by those opposed to the introduction of body worn camera have been the financial costs associated with their rollout. There is no doubt that the initial cost of supplying the equipment and the subsequent storage of data will constitute a significant outlay. The benefits of the cameras as outlined should see savings and efficiencies with a reduction in vexatious complaints and contested court cases all of which consume finite resources from within the justice budget. What we cannot put a price on is the reassurance they will give to members knowing that their actions and comments cannot be misrepresented or the validation they will bring to the rights of domestic violence victims.

The technology will not be a substitute for personal policing, they will not stop assaults on members, and they will cause difficulties and complications in some circumstances for members. But the benefits will outweigh any minor drawbacks and they are something our members have consistently called for since 2015. It is long past time that frontline operational members saw some dividend from the endless onslaught of promises of modernisation that consistently fail to deliver the basic tools of policing that colleagues in other jurisdictions have been using successfully for many years. GR

Garda Brendan O’Connor is vice president of the Garda Representative Association

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

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