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Police in NSW will soon be equipped with body cameras – as will their counterparts on Queensland’s Gold Coast in domestic violence incidents. AAP/Andi Yu

Beware the unintended consequences of police-worn body cameras

Among the Queensland government’s initiatives to address a recent string of domestic violence deaths is a proposal for 300 body-worn cameras for police to use on the Gold Coast.

Body cameras are not new to Australia. They have been worn in Victoria for some time. A body camera trial has been extended in the Northern Territory. The 2015-16 South Australian budget includes funding for “body-worn video devices” for police. NSW announced this month that it would be rolling out body-worn cameras to frontline police to improve evidence gathering.

Body cameras could be a helpful tool for law enforcement in cases involving domestic violence. But their use could also have unintended consequences.

How cameras help

Video of the interactions between police, perpetrator and victim at the police call-out could provide useful evidence for any future prosecution or in applications for protection orders.

The availability of video evidence should also help avoid trials. Confronted with compelling video evidence, reluctant witnesses may be more willing to assist in the prosecution of perpetrators. Perpetrators may be more willing to consent to orders or to plead guilty. That would allow victims to avoid the trauma of having to relive the violence through giving testimony in court.

Body cameras may also help to moderate tensions at a domestic violence call-out, helping to reduce assaults on police and unacceptable police force.

A trial of police-worn body cameras in the United Kingdom found that footage supported reluctant witnesses through the court process. The cameras provided an exact record of the demeanour and language of the accused, the disturbance at the scene and the emotional effect on the victim. Overall, it strengthened the prosecution’s case.

Similarly, an evaluation of police use of body cameras in Phoenix, a city in the US state of Arizona, found arrests generally increased by 17%; in domestic violence cases, charges were more likely to be filed and were more likely to result in a guilty verdict.

The unintended consequences

By the time police turn up to a call-out perpetrators may appear calm and rational, while their terrified and frustrated victims may appear irrational, crazy or angry – far from the “perfect victim” that police, prosecutors and courts expect to see. Such demeanours will be captured on video footage and may present obstacles to victims’ later claims for protection orders and diminish their credibility in court hearings.

One-off video footage is likely to be unhelpful in disentangling the complexity of ongoing domestic abuse and could provide a misleading picture of the relationship between the victim and perpetrator. Video of a “one-off” incident could even result in unintended criminalisation of a victim if the video depicts injuries inflicted on the perpetrator in self-defence.

Videos could also be used to coerce participation from victims who are not interested in prosecuting their partners, if video footage is used in lieu of live testimony from the victim or contradicts the victim’s live testimony. Also, victims who recant their testimony could find themselves confronted in court with their prior videotaped statements. Victims might even be prosecuted for perjury if their testimony conflicts with video-recorded statements.

Such consequences might seem unlikely in Queensland. But these tactics are used in the US, which has long had a strong pro-prosecution culture in domestic violence cases.

Used properly, body cameras could enhance the criminal justice response to domestic violence and make it easier for victims to find justice through the criminal justice system. But video footage should only be used in consultation with victims, to give victims time to decide whether and how to engage the legal system and inform them about the consequences of doing so.

The criminal justice system is a reactive institution, intervening only after the fact and often after grave damage has already been done. Body cameras would not prevent deaths of women and children at the hands of their partners. Clearly, then, policy interventions should focus on prevention as well.

Improving the police and prosecutorial response to domestic violence is essential. Police and prosecutors must be thoroughly trained in the dynamics of domestic violence to ensure that body camera footage is not used in ways that undermine the autonomy of – or endanger – victims of violence.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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