Jury still out on police body cameras

Smile, you’re on body worn camera (WA Police)

The Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) has published a report on the effectiveness of police body-worn cameras in Australia.

The report is based on interviews with 899 people detained by police across Australia. It also examines some of the existing literature on body-worn cameras (BWCs), highlighting many of the issues surrounding their use.

The findings of the research suggest that people detained by police in Australia largely support the use of police BWCs, but this depends upon on a number of ‘operational and procedural requirements’.

BWCs are a comparatively recent development in Australian policing. They were first trialled in Western Australia in 2007, but the early cameras used were large and relatively expensive, and they were not adopted. Newer and smaller cameras are now being trialled in Perth and Bunbury.

In March 2010 the Queensland Police Service began a trial of ten police BWCs in the Townsville and Toowoomba. The AIC reports says that there is anecdotal evidence that the cameras were so popular that some police officers were purchasing their own BWCs to record their activities.

Queensland announced in July 2016 that it would roll out 2,200 BWCs to frontline police officers, in addition to the 500 initially trialled by Gold Coast and traffic police. This is the most by any law enforcement agency in Australia, and one of the largest implementations globally. (BWCs are now very popular in the USA, but police forces there are local and much smaller).

The South Australian Government has committed $5.9 million to the rollout of BWCs to all frontline police officers by mid-2019. The NSW Police Force announced in May 2015 that it would invest over $4 million in BWC technology to roll out cameras to all frontline police officers.

In 2014 the Northern Territory Police began a trial of 48 BWCs allocated to police officers in selected regions. Police in Tasmania have been trialling BWCs in various training scenarios conducted by the Special Operations Group. Victoria Police is currently trialling and evaluating the technology.

There are still many doubts about the effectiveness of BWCs. There is a large body of research on the subject, but it is mostly based on the experiences of the police wearing the cameras. The AIC study, by concentrating on the reaction of police detainees to the technology, presents a different perspective.

Most of the surveyed detainees (70 percent) were aware that police officers sometimes wore BWCs, but only 12 percent reported that the arresting officer was wearing a camera. More than half (57 percent) did not know and one third (31 percent) said that the police officer involved in their arrest was not wearing a camera.

Detainees were asked open ended questions about what they thought of police BWCs. Responses were coded into the four main categories of evidence, protection, accountability and fairness.

The vast majority of detainees (80 percent) thought police BWCs were a ‘good idea, usually because they provided improved evidence of events, including the arrest itself (32 percent). “There was recognition that at times it is difficult for an accurate account of events to be captured, particularly if events unfold quickly,” says the report.

The next most common reason given (25 percent) was that BWCs provided a measure of protection for police and citizens, particularly against violence or excessive use of force.

“These responses indicated that the detainees believed that BWCs could help to assuage tensions and potentially reduce violent encounters between police and members of the public.”

A further 23 percent of reasons cited related to accountability, in that police could be held responsible for their actions while on duty, providing an avenue of recourse for citizens if they felt the police acted inappropriately.

Reponses in this category typically suggested a perception that police may use excessive force or falsely accuse arrestees of offending behaviours and that BWCs would help to guard against this.

Some typical comments:

  • “Police charge people with things they didn’t do.”
  • “At least when you are getting arrested there is a third party video-taping. A lot of officers like to get heavy handed.
  • “The cameras are a good idea because it makes police behave more ethically.”

Some (19 percent) of responses related to ‘fairness’, emphasising the perceived value of BWCs in ensuring that both police and members of the public acted appropriately and in accordance with rules and regulations.

“The responses of detainees in the study highlight the need for evidence-based policy on the deployment of BWCs,” says the report.

“In particular there needs to be clear guidelines and protocols about how and when they are operated. The failure to support ‘common sense’ claims about the benefits and ethical management of BWC data may risk damage to police legitimacy in some contexts.

“Some detainees were worried about how footage of them might be used. Ensuring cameras were used ‘fairly’ was a recurrent theme among arrestees and this underpinned support or opposition to the use of police cameras.

“There remain many questions to be answered. How will data be stored? Who will have access to it and under what circumstances? How will it be retrieved and analysed? How accurate can the footage be claimed to be?

“It may be that the support for and goodwill towards the introduction of BWCs demonstrated by the respondents, and by the public and police, could quickly fade if these concerns are not adequately addressed.

“This research indicated broad support for the use of BWCs but also some reservations. Attending to these concerns is important if the potential of BWCs to contribute positively to law enforcement, rather than exacerbating problems, is to be realised.”

The report is available here.

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