The use of body-worn cameras by police received extensive media attention recently. Cameras aim to enhance police accountability and efficiency. Still, the effects of cameras on privacy and effectiveness are questionable.
By: Vuk Velebit
Cameras are everywhere. Each of us can capture daily life by cell phone. Usually, people tend to behave better when they know they are being watched. Even the suggestion that someone is watching tends to influence people. Probably, we will behave differently only when we see a sign “CCTV records 24/7” even though the camera is actually not recording.
Many police departments started using the body-worn cameras (BWC) several years ago with the assumption that everyone would start behaving better when they know are being recorded. In many cases that proved to be true. On the other hand, their increased use has also raised a lot of questions and concerns.
Body cameras are supposed not only to catch police abuses of power but to deter them as officers will do their best knowing that they could be easily accused of it. These small devices provide a lens into law enforcement in order to build trust and transparency. BWCs may encourage officer adherence to departmental protocols and influence everyone at the scene, civilians included, to act more peacefully, as stated in a study done last year in the USA. Video footage from the BWCs may provide evidentiary value that helps resolve complaints brought by members of the public and to resolve court cases. Body-worn cameras may also find the use in improving the work of police officers and their departments. It might be used for providing scenario-based training, but also to evaluate the performance of new officers.
Nevertheless, several questions are opened in regard to the effectiveness of body cameras. Which types of encounters with members of the community police officers should record? In which situation BWC should record? How to protect privacy? How will the footage be used and stored? What would be the costs to taxpayers? New research says that body cameras have almost no effect on police officer behavior. Police executives are concerned that BWCs could send the wrong message about the trust between officers and police chiefs. In that case, police officers would have a feeling that they are constantly under some inspection by their supervisors.
One of the most substantial questions police departments have faced in evaluating BWCs is how to identify which type of encounters officers should record.
Without the discretion, body cams might have the potential to damage relationships that officers are building every day with the community. Moreover, witnesses at the crime scene would prefer to stay anonymous and not to be recorded. Of course, this discretion should be guided by policies that set specific parameters for when officers may use discretion.
There are two main approaches showed in several studies when it comes to discretion when to record. One approach is to require officers to record all encounters with the public, including not only during calls for service but also during informal conversations with the civilians. According to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), requiring officers to record every encounter with the public could undermine community members’ privacy rights and damage police-community relationships.
Second, the more common approach is to require officers to activate their body cameras only when responding to calls for service and during law enforcement-related activities such as arrests, searches, traffic stops, interrogations, and pursuits. Recording the events at a live crime scene should help officers capture spontaneous statements that might be useful in the later investigation.
Reasons why officers should have a more flexible approach to recording
One of them is that it gives them the discretion to not record if they estimate that doing so would violate individual’s rights. Another situation might be when officers talking with crime victims or witnesses who are concerned about revenge if they are seen as cooperating with the police. Finally, some policies, as underscored in “Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program”, give officers the discretion not to record when doing so would be unsafe, impractical or impossible, but most of them require officers to document on camera or in writing why they are turning it off.
It is obvious that the emergence of new technologies and social networks have changed the way people consider their privacy, but the recordings made by the body-worn cameras might allow for the potential use of facial recognition technology.
The usage of BWCs give officers an opportunity to record sensitive situations, but also to record inside private homes when arresting or doing research. In regard to that, some law enforcement agencies have taken the position that officers have the right to record inside private houses as long as they have a legal right to be there.
Other questions that rise up are how the footage from body cams may be stored and used or how long recorded data should be retained, as well as who will have an access to the footage. There is a dominant categorization when it comes to the footage, dividing it to evidentiary or non-evidentiary.
The first one involves footage that could be useful for investigation purposes, while the latter one involves footage that does not necessarily have value to the investigation process.
As already mentioned, significant privacy concerns can arise when interviewing victims or witnesses, but in such cases, officers should have in mind the evidentiary value of recording and the willingness of the victim to speak on camera. But, if officers are talking to a member of the community just asking what’s going on, it is better for the relationship if the officers do not record that type of conversation, says Stephen Cullen, Chief Superintendent from New South Wales Police Force.
“We view evidence collection as one of the primary functions of cameras. So in the case of interviewing witnesses, we would make every attempt to capture the statement on video. However, we do allow discretion if the person we approach requests that the camera is turned off”, stressed Cory Christensen, Deputy Chief of Police, Fort Collins.
Money and Storage
Talking about disadvantages of body cameras, there are two obstacles: money and storage.
The explosion of the BWCs has created the problem: what to do with all the data and how to pay the storage for it. There are initial camera costs, with each camera running around $1,000, but the storage costs are the real expense and the most expensive aspect of this program. Agencies must allocate resources toward storing recorded data, managing videos, providing training to officers and administering the program.
On the other side, some police executives say that BWCs can actually save the money by improving officer professionalism, reducing complaints and lawsuits against officers. Storing body cams data is the next big challenge for police. More and more police departments around the world are implementing the BWCs program, but it remains to be seen whether more videos will improve or hurt public trust.
According to one of the first researches done by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2013, the study found that there was an 88% reduction in the number of citizen complaints between the year prior to camera implementation and the year following deployment. To understand the range of this research project, it consisted of three major components: an informal survey of 500 law enforcement agencies nationwide; interviews with police executives; and a conference in which police chiefs and other experts from across the country gathered to discuss the use of body-worn cameras. The study also found that there was a 60% reduction in officer use of force incidents following camera deployment, but also the shifts without cameras encountered twice as many uses of force incidents as shifts with cameras.
Last year study was done by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) with the Lab @ DC, a team of applied scientists based out of the Office of the City Administrator, showed different results. For seven months, over a thousand Washington D.C. police officers were randomly assigned cameras and another thousand were not. Researchers wanted to discover if the usage of cameras changed the behavior of both officers and civilians. They tracked civilian complaints, use of force incidents and other outcomes, but the effects were too small to be statistically significant. The most shocking was that the presence of BWCs had no detectable effect on police use of force nor the civilian complaints filed against the police, the study shows.
Some say that there are benefits to the criminal justice system in terms of more guilty pleas, reduced costs at court and a reduction in the number of civil cases brought against the police service for unlawful arrest or excessive force. Researchers in the study which was led by the Lab @ DC and D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department examined whether the presence of a BWC on the arresting officer has an effect on the rate of prosecutions. The results showed that a group of 1,000 officers with BWCs is associated with 2,422 more prosecutions in a year than officers without BWCs. In conclusion, they say that the effect may be meaningful, but there is a lot of uncertainty in the estimate. So, they noted no detectable effect, while also reminding that access to judicial outcomes data was constrained.
The results were unexpected to be like that, so one of the hypothesis is that officers got used to the cameras and became desensitized to them. Another possibility is that officers without cameras were acting like officers with cameras because they knew that other officers had the devices, writes Amanda Ripley for the New York Times.
Body-Worn Cameras in the Western Balkans
The fact is that police body-worn camera are not widely used in the Balkans. Macedonia and Albania are the only where they are used or where police will start their implementation. Western Balkans states are recognized as deeply corrupted, so police bribes have been a major issue for security in the past but still in the present. The Albanian police have started the implementation of body cameras (584 have been bought) in order to decrease the police bribes, but also to change the mentality and bring police to communities.
“Now we will have a better way of dealing with citizens’ complaints about how the police approach them and, on the other hand, we will know exactly where our forces are and what they are doing, said the Director of Security in the Police, Altin Qato. He stated that Albanian police have spent around 3.7 million euros on body-worn cameras.
Beside Albania, so-called “mobile cameras” are being tested in Macedonia. The idea is to decrease corruption and citizens’ complaints. So far, the problem is the absence of information on the results of using the BWCs, but also about the future plans. As police bribes are the major problem in each Western Balkans state, body cameras might play a big role in the reduction of corruption and citizens’ complaints.