Body-worn cameras are not a panacea for poor policing

A Queensland police officer models the body-worn camera. AAP/supplied

“Body-worn cameras are the modern equivalent of the police notebook,” announced the Queensland police minister in 2014. But does this view ignore some important issues that audiovisual technologies bring into the frame?

The need for body-worn cameras: background

In 2015, US President Barack Obama pledged funding to introduce police body-worn cameras (BWC) in all US states. This was instigated by several high profile incidents exposing police brutality, particularly the fatal shootings of unarmed African Americans by police in the US (notably Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Eric Harris, and many others documented in The Counted).

BWCs have emerged as the latest techno-fix aimed at improving police behaviour and accountability. But as with other crime control technologies, this investment comes in the absence of evidence regarding impact and effectiveness, or an awareness of the multiple and complex issues that police BWCs generate.

While recent debates have largely been dominated by US events, police BWCs are an international phenomenon with a history spanning over a decade. They have been in use by the UK police since 2006, and were first trialled in Australia the following year.

Police BWCs in Australia

Police BWCs first appeared in Australia in Western Australia in 2007. The financial cost of early adoption was found to be prohibitive, and investment in the technology only began in earnest several years later.

The New South Wales Police Force, one of the largest in the English-speaking world, announced in 2014 that they had invested over A$4 million in BWC technology to roll out cameras to all frontline police officers following what the New South Wales police minister described as “very positive results” from (unpublished) trials.

This year, Queensland Police Service will provide 2,200 body cameras to its frontline officers, in addition to the 500 initially trialled by Gold Coast police. This is the largest number of devices issued to any law enforcement agency in Australia, and one of the highest in the world.

The Northern Territory Police Force began a trial of 48 police BWCs in 2014. Similarly, Tasmania police have been trialling BWCs. Victoria Police is currently evaluating BWCs In South Australia, the state government committed $5.9 million to roll out BWCs to all frontline officers by mid-2019, with the SA Police Association supporting their implementation as “commonsense”.

Australian police officers have largely welcomed the introduction of BWCs - so much so that some have purchased their own devices in Brisbane and Adelaide, downloading and storing footage at home. Clearly, this raises issues about the quality and impartiality of this footage, its admissibility in court, and the inter-operability of systems and associated software. Then, of course, there are huge potential privacy and data protection concerns.

What do we know about the impact and effectiveness of BWCs?

The short answer is – not a lot. Essentially, there is what some researchers describe as “a world-wide uncontrolled social experiment taking place” at a cost of billions of dollars. Although a handful of studies have emerged as researchers rush to establish the impact of BWCs on a range of variables including police use of force and complaints against the police, there is hardly a large body of evidence demonstrating best practice.

There have been some early indicators that police BWCs can reduce police use of force as well as violence. But there is little available evidence to ascertain how and in what circumstances. In contrast, cameras can be seen as a “symbol of mistrust” and aggravate an incident. A recent study found that officers were 15% more likely to experience an assault when wearing the cameras, suggesting that they could intensify interpersonal conflict.

Camera view bias

But it’s not just about the impact on police and citizen behaviour. Decades of research on crime control technologies demonstrate that they can have unintended consequences. The positioning of the camera and its field of vision has been found to impact on the interpretation of events. There is an implicit “camera view bias” in which viewers are inclined to interpret footage from the perspective of the person wearing the camera. In relation to BWCs, this has been demonstrated through excellent simulations of police-public encounters. This has huge implications when using footage as evidence in criminal trials.

Manipulating recordings

Another unresolved issue relates to officer discretion in selectively choosing when and what to film. This essentially allows them to “edit on the fly”, a kind of redaction in action. The ability of cameras to reduce use of force and soothe conflicts is “seriously undermined” by the ability of officers to turn the cameras on and off at will without consequence. Multiple cases have already emerged in which police officers appear to deliberately stop recording during violent altercations with members of the public.

A 2015 report on police BWCs in Phoenix, Arizona documented that only about 20-29% of incidents that should have been recorded by police BWCs actually were. Similarly, Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor found in 2014 that less than half of use-of-force incidents involving officers wearing BWCs were recorded, because the cameras were either turned off or experienced technical problems. Of further concern, a recent study found that when officers could turn cameras on and off, use of force rates were 71% higher compared to control conditions.

But continuous recording raises some serious privacy issues for police, victims, witnesses and informants, not to mention the huge amount of data that would be generated causing storage and retrievability issues.

Audiovisual technologies have come to play a central role in policing. Importantly, they represent notions of fairness, transparency and accountability. But early findings are revealing that BWCs are not the panacea they have been purported to be, nor are they benign functional equivalents of existing processes.

There are a number of operational procedures that need to be carefully considered if the cameras are to have legitimacy and improve behaviour on both sides of the lens.

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