essex police

A number of police forces have recently announced that they hold large scale trials of body worn video cameras for all officers on patrol. These cameras will be attached to police uniforms, and can be switched on or off at the discretion of officers. The reaction from civil liberties organisations have been muted, but Netpol has spoken out publicly against the routine use of bodycams, and the implications of further extending police surveillance capacity.

Staffordshire police has now joined Hampshire, Northamptonshire, Sussex, Thames Valley and Avon and Somerset police forces in the use of body cams, having issued 530 cameras at a reported cost of £660 per camera. The chief constable of Scotland’s single police service has said he wants every officer north of the border issued with a body-worn video camera Not all forces share this stance, however – Peter Fahy of Greater Manchester Police has been more circumspect, suggesting that routine police filming could cause ‘distress’ to the public, who may have concerns about where their data will ultimately end up.

Bodycams can have an alienating impact, making people less likely to approach the police – perhaps to ask for help or report an incident. In communities where there are already tensions and lack of trust in the police, this effect may be amplified, potentially deterring victims of crime from coming forward.

Nevertheless, the College of Policing say they are conducting large scale trials with five police forces, on the basis that they will be “beneficial in reducing police use of force.” This claim is based on findings of a trial of police worn cameras in Rialto, California, which is claimed to have achieved am 88% reduction in police use of force, and 60% reduction in complaints of police misconduct. While the US experience is being hailed and heralded, there is a lack of equivalent information coming from the UK forces who already use this technology – perhaps because they have not experienced the same effect.

The deployment of bodycams in the UK has received significant political support, as politicians look for a convenient ‘policy’ to deflect criticism at the decline of public trust in the British police. Theresa May and previous privacy advocate David Davis have championed their use, on the basis that they will increase police accountability and avoid further ‘plebgate’ incidents. They should perhaps, take a lesson from the experience of the police complaints process. Systems to control police behaviour are seldom effective when they are controlled by the police themselves.

Police body worn cameras, and the footage that results from them, are controlled by the police from beginning to end. It is the police that decide when and if the camera is turned on, which direction it is pointing in, and who it is focused on. It is also the police that decide whether or not to mark the resulting images as of evidential or intelligence value, thus enabling them to be retained for years rather than the standard 31 days. The Home Office guidance on the use of bodycams lauds what it calls a ‘flexible policy’ on the retention of data, which in practice means there is little to prevent bodycam images ending up on intelligence databases. Finally, it is the police that decide how that information is used, and with whom it is shared.

There are particular issues about the use of bodycams in stop and search operations. ‘Section 60’ searches, routinely used by police in a variety of situations, enable the police to stop and search people without any need to suspect them of an offence. Although the law does not allow the police to demand a name and address, the police can be extremely persuasive. If bodycams are put into this mix, the police will have access to a convenient head and shoulders or full body image to go along with that name and address and the range of other data about associates, clothing, movements and attitudes, which can also be recorded. Young people from working class areas, particularly black working class areas, will already be wearily familiar with the format.

The police do not have a great track record in relation to their data – there is growing evidence that the police systematically gather and retain data on people who have committed no criminal offence but are guilty of being part of a community that is viewed as suspect – black communities, Muslim communities, Kurdish or Tamil communities, protesters, even football fans and journalists. This data can be used for various forms of analysis – the Met’s geotime software, for example, can use data from multiple sources (including social media) to visually present the movements, communications, meetings and connections of ‘target’ groups. Images and data identified as being useful for policing purposes (a frighteningly vague concept) will be kept for seven years, and longer, if that is what is decided. There is no need for any substantive evidence that the individuals concerned have committed any criminal offence.

While the need to prevent police from using unnecessary or disproportionate force is both real and urgent, the use of police worn bodycams is unlikely to be the answer. These cameras point outwards, not inwards, and are concerned with surveillance of the public, not the police.