3 Ways the Police Could Improve Their Body Worn Cameras Policy

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who explains 3 ways the police can use body worn cameras to restore public confidence.

Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, explains 3 ways the police can use body worn cameras to restore public confidence.

By Kevin Donoghue, solicitor

A University of Cambridge study confirmed that, where police body worn cameras are used appropriately, the number of complaints against police officers by members of the public reduced by 93%.

Despite this remarkable statistic, current police policy towards body cameras means that, UK-wide, police complaints are unlikely to be reduced so drastically. Here I explain how police policy towards body worn cameras undermines public confidence and some possible solutions to improve it.

What the University of Cambridge Study Found

The year-long Cambridge study, which included almost 2,000 police officers across six forces in the UK and United States, found that complaints against the police went from 1,539 in the previous year to 113 in the year of the trial.

Discussing the matter on the Victoria Derbyshire show, Home Affairs Correspondent Danny Shaw explained the reduction in complaints by saying that “It looks as though the police are modifying their behaviour. They know they’re being recorded every single step of the way, so there is some kind of subconscious decision to act more professionally.”

He also pointed out that the cameras may also have a calming effect on the public. People know the cameras are switched on so anything they do or say could be used in evidence against them.

The lead researcher, Barak Ariel, said, “I cannot think of any (other) single intervention in the history of policing that dramatically changed the way that officers behave, the way that suspects behave, and the way they interact with each other.”

Chief Inspector Ian Williams of West Yorkshire Police, one of the forces included in the study, described the body worn cameras as “excellent” and said there were many benefits, including less time spent at court, avoiding the need to call vulnerable victims to give evidence at court, and the increased detection rate.

Body Worn Cameras Policy Failings

It appears all sides agree that body worn cameras are a good thing for both the police and public. They help promote transparency, trust, and public confidence, which are essential in a society where the police work under Robert Peel’s “9 Principles of Policing”, the second of which is:

To recognise always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.

And in my role as a solicitor who specialises in civil actions against the police I find body worn camera evidence invaluable. (For example, when proving police lies in one client’s case to justify misconduct.)

But there’s a problem: police and government policy on body worn cameras is falling short in three key ways, all of which undermine public confidence:

Issue 1: The police control when cameras are operating and their technical capabilities

In the Cambridge University study, the cameras were turned on all the time officers were on shift, (typically between 8-12 hours) except during agreed circumstances, such as breaks, travelling between calls for service, and when dealing with certain incidents such as matters involving serious sexual assaults.

By contrast, current policy detailed in the 2014 College of Policing guidance on Body Worn Video, gives officers the power to turn the cameras on and off at will. As the study’s authors point out, “Leaving the decision to switch on the camera during an encounter and not before officers begin engaging with a citizen may backfire (Ariel et al., 2016a). It also defeats one of the major purposes of the camera: to record the interaction from the officer’s perspective, from beginning to end, therefore providing crucial evidence of the decision-making processes that have led him or her to exercise use of force.”

I previously wrote about my concerns with giving officers this power. In that blog post I noted how Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, defended the police’s approach. He claimed that leaving cameras on would be “too intrusive”.

I disagree. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe’s concerns about leaving the cameras running at all times (except in specific circumstances) have been proven unfounded by the Cambridge University study.  And allowing police officers to control when they activate body worn cameras gives the impression that the cameras will be used selectively and undermines public confidence.

Also, while some body worn cameras have a 30-second pre-record function, to capture footage from before the officer starts recording, government policy from the Home Office Centre for Applied Science and Technology does not require this because “The National Policing Lead has decided that these features are not currently required.” (In 2014 the National Policing Lead for Body-Worn Video was Chief Constable Andy Marsh of Hampshire Constabulary.)

Pre-recording can be useful in showing police officer behaviour before an incident escalates. In my experience, things said and done in the minutes, not just seconds, before an arrest can be extremely valuable in proving liability in police misconduct cases.

It can’t be right that the police themselves set policy on important camera features such as this. The pre-record technology is widely available. All forces should use it and manufacturers should be pressed to produce equipment with at least 5 minutes of pre-recording built-in. Axon, a division of Taser, the manufacturers of “stun guns”, already sell a body camera with a 2 minute pre-record feature. Given reductions in the cost of memory a 5 minute pre-recording feature is not unrealistic.

Not using cameras at all appropriate times and with sufficient pre-recording features gives the impression that police forces have something to hide.

Issue 2: Police keep body camera footage for a very short period

In my earlier blog post I noted how Rachel Tuffin of the College of Policing said that there were issues with data storage. As a result, guidance from the College of Policing means that forces keep body worn camera footage for up to 31 days, the same length of time as police station CCTV video. The College of Policing suggests this is a maximum length of time following the case of Wood v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis (2009). Some forces may delete footage sooner.

On the whole, the public is unaware of the short window of time to request that this (potentially vital) evidence be preserved. As a result, complaints and claims against the police can be harder to investigate.

Despite the data protection issues, given the significant benefits, it’s time the police invest in technology to store footage for at least 12 months.

Issue 3: Police have power to edit footage

Another issue highlighted in the Victoria Derbyshire programme was that the police officers wearing the body worn cameras have the power to edit footage themselves. As my client’s case shows, some officers will not care what the footage shows, but others might. While any edit creates a new file, rather than deleting the original footage, it’s easy to imagine a situation where the original footage is mysteriously lost or erased, leaving only the edited (and favourable to the police) footage available.

To avoid suspicion, officers should not have the power to edit their own camera footage unsupervised.

Recommended Action

It appears that the University of Cambridge study was an unqualified success, both in terms of its application and results. If the police nationwide are truly committed to reducing complaints and restoring public confidence, I urge forces to implement these common-sense recommendations:

  1. Ensure body cameras have a 5 minute pre-record feature and that they are switched on at all times when officers are on shift, except in certain circumstances described above
  2. Extend the video retention period to at least 12 months
  3. Do not allow officers to edit their own body worn camera footage unsupervised.

Chief constables have all the proof they need, and, if they put their minds to it, the means to make things happen. Now it’s time to act.

Read more about civil actions against the police on my firm’s website.