Can the Police Be Trusted with Body Cameras?

Photo of Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, who asks if the police can be trusted with body cameras.
Kevin Donoghue, solicitor, asks if the police can be trusted with body cameras.

By Kevin Donoghue, Solicitor

A little under a year ago I wrote about the roll-out of police body cameras. (Read the blog here.) In that post I noted that these tools can have a positive effect on policing, reducing both the number of complaints and the use of force. But I cautioned that they should be used in every interaction with the public, and that the police’s current policy of allowing officers to turn the body cameras on and off was bad idea.

For some police officers the presence of body cameras is not enough to change their behaviour. As a result, I am now seeing cases where police misconduct is caught on body cameras, or “body worn cameras” as they are more properly known (BWCs, which produce body worn video, or BWV).

In the ongoing case I describe below, body camera technology helped avoid a serious miscarriage of justice, but in doing so the officers involved may have learned the wrong kind of valuable lessons.

(What follows is a combination of my client’s evidence, the police’s body camera footage, and the officers’ own evidence. As this case is ongoing, names have been withheld for privacy reasons.)

Police Body Cameras Record Arrest

On a fine, sunny day in August 2013, my client Mr A was arrested for these offences:

  • Breach of the Police (a public order offence);
  • obstructing the police in the execution of their duty; and
  • resisting arrest.

He was a man of good character having never had any previous contact with the police.

But on this occasion Mr A had committed a minor traffic infringement. He needed to collect a birthday present from Argos and believing that he would collect it and be back in a few minutes, he parked illegally in the busy town centre near his home.

Unfortunately for Mr A, his car was spotted and when he returned, he came across a female police officer and a male special constable writing out a ticket and carrying out checks on his car.

Realising his mistake Mr A was immediately contrite and apologetic. He tried to explain himself but the officers were having none of it. Feeling ignored, he became upset.

Mr A is an American who, on this occasion, lived up to the stereotype. In explaining himself he came across as loud, enthusiastic, and brash.

Unfortunately his behaviour was misconceived by the female officer as aggressive and she called for backup.

My client was due to attend work. When he realised he was late, he simply asked that the officers issue the ticket and let him go on his way. But bizarrely, the simple issue of the ticket took some time.

In the meantime, in response to the WPC’s emergency “10/20 call”, a vehicle carrying three officers was sent to the scene. While they drove to the scene the female officer confirmed to her colleagues that my client had calmed down and implied that all was well.

Despite this the police car arrived at speed with emergency sirens and lights flashing.

One of the police officers, who I will refer to as “PC X”, emerged from the vehicle in a short sleeve shirt and leather gloves. To my client, he looked like a doorman or enforcer of some kind.

PC X took the lead in what followed and later provided a full statement. In it he said that he saw an illegally parked car and two officers talking to my client, described by them accurately as a white male, 6ft 1 inches tall, of large build, aged around 35-50, and wearing a distinctive work uniform.

PC X said Mr A was shouting, “Does giving a ticket take 40 minutes? I’ve got to go. Hurry up”.

He said that my client appeared agitated with both hands in his pockets. He shouted at any officer that asked him a question and failed to listen to any directions given. The officer said, “From his gestures and pacing around, I took his stance as being hostile and aggressive”.

PC X said that Mr A was “asked on several ocasions (sic) to stop shouting, relax and calm down”, however he appeared to ignore this advice.

The officer continued, “I explained that his actions were liable to make him arrestable to prevent a Breach of the Peace as the area in which we were stood was very busy with members of the public. I would estimate approximately 25–30 persons were in listening distance of the male. I….told him that if he continued to shout he would be arrested. I then explained that the best advice I could give him was to not talk and only answer questions when asked. This appeared to agitate him further where he then began to verbally abuse me directly saying something similar to ‘Oh you’re the big man/cop’. He then continued to shout where I took hold of his right arm and explained that he was now under arrest for a breach of the peace.”

My client was then manhandled, grappled to the ground, and sprayed in the face with PAVA “captor” incapacitant spray (also known as “pepper spray”). He was handcuffed to the rear. The taste of captor is extremely unpleasant and my client tried to spit it out onto the ground. Seeing this, the police covered his head with a spit bag.

They put him in leg restraints and took Mr A to the local Police Station where he was processed and detained.

Body Cameras Reviewed

Fortunately the incident was caught on two officer’s body worn cameras. The quality (both visual and audio) is superb.

At the police station it was decided that my client would be detained so further evidence could be obtained and Mr A could be interviewed. A new officer was assigned to the case. He considered the evidence and watched the body camera footage.

That officer was immediately concerned and handed the file to a supervisor who carried out a further review alongside her co-supervisor. The following is what the supervisor saw and noted. Compare it with the description given in the statement by the officer above (my emphasis in bold):

“The ….officers arrive at scene ….. at approximately 16:30 hours. 

 The footage at this point records PC X opening the conversation with Mr A, saying “hello mate” and “how are we doing” to which Mr A replies “I’m just trying to get my ticket and get back to work”. PC X asks why he’s being aggressive to which Mr A replies “I haven’t been aggressive” and remains standing still with his hands in his pockets. Please note that Mr A maintains this non-confrontational stance throughout the incident until he (sic) taken to the ground later. 

 The situation deteriorates from this point as PC X becomes increasingly confrontational and continues to accuse Mr A of being aggressive. It can be seen from the body language that PC X is getting irritated because Mr A is remaining passive and refuses to be provoked into joining the confrontation.  PC X then accuses Mr A of not answering his questions although in fact he has not asked him anything. He then calls Mr A “a dick” at which point Mr A remonstrates with him asking why it is okay for (police) to say that sort of thing? 

 PC X then arrested Mr A for breach of the peace and for section 5 POA. 

 Although Mr A remained non-confrontational throughout the incident, repeating that he was being calm and that he wasn’t being aggressive, PC Y then tells Mr A not to be obnoxious; at this point he is taken to the ground and PC Y deploys her captor spray. Then Mr A can be heard asking for water as he is “burning up”.

 PC Y can be seen in the BWV footage to kneel on Mr A’s lower back although he is not struggling. PC X accuses Mr A of spitting at him so he is placed in a spit hood. We established later that Mr A was trying to clear his airway from the effects of the spray. 

 The most obvious issue with this incident is in fact there was no necessity to arrest Mr A. …. He did not commit a breach of the peace; he did not breach public order and he did not resist arrest. The entire incident was escalated by the officers attending. A more courteous and good humorous approach would have no doubt resolved the matter. 

 When I viewed the CCTV footage my immediate concern was that the officers’ use of force was excessive in the circumstances – I could not see the necessity to take Mr A to the ground and then also captor spray him. I also felt that the officers failed to treat Mr A fairly or appropriately by refusing to listen to his side of the story. PC X’s conduct deteriorated into orally abusing Mr A and then arresting him for offences he had not committed. 

…..

I would say that PC X on this occasion breached the …. police code of conduct and such behaviour brings the police into disrepute.

The supervisor’s colleague also provided a report & advised that (again, my emphasis in bold):

“From viewing the BWV it was my opinion that as soon as PC X got out of his police car his attitude was ‘bullish’ and continued throughout the remainder of the incident. Prior to him being restrained, Mr A’s hands were in his pockets the whole time, he was never rude to the police officers and was polite to them, he was not shouting and I felt that PC’s X and Y did not respect the fact he was American and their accent is sometimes louder than other accents. PC X was extremely unprofessional by calling Mr A a ‘dick’, it undermined everything else PC X did during the remainder of his contact with Mr A, especially as he later threatened to arrest him for swearing, when PC X did exactly the same.

 I felt that the situation was dealt with very poorly. As police officers we are employed to display excellent communication skills at all times – this was not displayed by either PC X or PC Y at any point, they did not take the time to listen to Mr A to establish why he was upset and then try to resolve the situation, they just kept telling him to ‘calm down and ‘be quiet’. In my opinion they were not working in line with …..police values, they did not show any compassion towards Mr A by taking the time to listen to his point of view, they were just content on trying to keep him quiet and seem to get annoyed when he continued to talk which he is perfectly entitled to do. Police officers are meant to have patience to deal with difficult customers and situations but as soon as Mr A suggested to PC X that he didn’t have any crime to deal with PC X seemed to lose his patience and arrest him for breach of the peace which Mr A had not done. I do not feel that they treated Mr A fairly and certainly did not do the right thing.”

Police Misconduct Caught on Body Cameras

The police body camera footage allowed the supervisory officers to carry out a swift review and establish not only an unlawful arrest but also excessive use of force. As a result, my client, an innocent victim of police misconduct, was released within a short time without charge. Shamefully, the officers involved did not apologise.

And I have no doubt that, without this review, my client would have been charged, prosecuted and, if the magistrates had been deceived at trial, wrongly convicted. 

This case also highlights possible problems in the future. Misconduct proceedings were brought against PC X, the officer in question. Despite his aggressive behaviour and subsequent brazen misrepresentations, his punishment was not instant dismissal.

Instead he was given “management action”, i.e. a slap on the wrist. This means that this rogue officer and his colleagues are still on the streets. They now know how effective body camera footage can be and that it will be used against them if they misbehave.

Next time these officers attend a similar situation, what are the chances that they won’t activate their body cameras?

 

If you have suffered as a result of police misconduct contact me via my firm’s website or call me on 08000 124 246.