Body Worn Video Steering Group

Dr Kevin Macnish – Body Worn Video Camera Debate

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Trials of body worn video (BWV) cameras have been underway in the UK in 2014, most notably that by Hampshire Constabulary who were recently praised for an innovative approach to tackling crime by Home Secretary Theresa May.

The body worn video camera technology has won applause from different areas. Conservative MP David Davis has described them as “an extremely good idea” in which “everyone is a winner”. HMIC argued that BWV would lead to faster trial times, earlier guilty pleas, and provide a permanent record of abuse in cases when the victim feels too frightened to press charges, while Met Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has stressed that BWV leads to accountability and transparency within the force.

Finally, Police Chief Tony Farrar of Rialto, California, the site of a trial in 2012 in which the presence of cameras led to a 50 per cent reduction in the use of force by officers and an impressive 88 per cent reduction in complaints against the police, has argued that, “when you’re being watched you behave a little better”. Farrar notes that that is true of both police and the public.

With a write-up like that, is there any surprise that forces such as Hampshire are looking to make Body worn video compulsory for front-line officers, a move which last year Theresa May said she would like to see extended across England and Wales? What is there to lose?

The pressure group Big Brother Watch published a briefing on the subject of BWV in August which highlighted concerns regarding the potential for police to interfere with the footage, either by turning the camera off at select moments, or by accessing the data after the recording is made. On the other hand, for example, companies such as Reveal ensure that evidence management software has rank-based parameters and automatic tampering detection on uploaded video. Additionally the video will not play unless opened with the DEMS software, ensuring the quality of what is at the end of the day – evidence.

According to research of 2,000 people in Bedfordshire, where BWV have been on trial since June 2013, 79.4 per cent believe that all uniformed officers should wear BWV while on duty.

However, the relationship between the police and the public should not be treated lightly.

How will body cameras impact the quality of the job, raise stress levels and contribute to a sense of being constantly monitored if police wear one? Overall, studies and polls have reflected strong support for using cameras.

If body worn video will harm the relationship between the police and the public then that alone should give us grounds to question their value. If cameras place an undue pressure on an already stressed workforce by removing the privacy of officers on the beat then this too should provide at least pause for thought. If they allow a breach of confidentiality offered to those who need protection then we need to take stock.

This is not to say that these concerns couldn’t or shouldn’t be overridden by the benefits raised at the beginning of this article.

However, to press forward in the implementation of BWV without a full debate as to the drawbacks would be rash and unwise.

Dr Kevin Macnish is Teaching Fellow and Consultant at the Inter-Disciplinary Applied Ethics Centre at the University of Leeds. Drawing on his experience working at GCHQ, the Defence Intelligence Staff and the US Department of Defense, he works on ethical issues in surveillance, security, and technology. The views and opinions expressed here do not reflect the BWVSG.

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