The results of the JusticeGap poll (Should the police have to wear body cameras? are not surprising. Some 90% of respondents answered “yes”. I didn’t take part, for the record if I had I would have agreed, but not necessarily for the same reasons. Pic from West Midlands police.
Body worn cameras are not new in UK policing, forces have been using them to good effect in capturing evidence of street encounters and in sensitive areas of policing such as domestic abuse.
So why the sudden upsurge in interest? and why, in a period of eye watering cuts to police budgets, is the Government keen to make significant sums of money available to put cameras on cops? Is this about trust in the police or capturing evidence to increase efficiency by reducing paperwork, not guilty pleas and expense in the criminal justice system? People will have different perspectives on this; ultimately it is about both these issues.
There is no avoiding the fact that confidence in the police has been undermined by a series of high profile events such as Plebgate, Hillsborough, crime recording etc. Despite these well reported events overall public confidence in the police remains high and the police service delivers confidence levels which remain the envy of many other public bodies and cameras could maintain or enhance these confidence levels.
Studies in other policing jurisdictions have shown that cameras can reduce police use of force, complaints against police and increase guilty pleas, resulting in less pressure on the justice system. The fact is cameras can and do moderate the behaviour of the wearer and of the person being filmed.
So what’s the problem?
Overall the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, most front line officers I speak to say “bring it on”, they are already acutely aware that policing in the 21st century takes place under the gaze of the CCTV camera and the smartphone. They are more than happy to further expose the sort of behaviour they are subjected to on a monotonously regular basis.
One disadvantage relates to the potential to infringe an individual’s rights under Article 8 ECHR, it was not so long ago that left wing politicians and the media were highlighting concerns about the plethora of CCTV in public spaces.
Agents of the state fitted with mobile CCTV has a slightly Orwellian feel to it, how long will it be before these commentators are expressing concerns about the police habitually filming encounters with citizens?
My main concern relates to the use of body worn cameras in firearms operations. Nailing my colours to the mast, I support use of cameras in firearms operations and have overall responsibility for the project which will see operational trials in a number of forces within the next few months.
Aside from some practical difficulties such as where do you mount the camera? When do you switch it on? Or perhaps more importantly when do you switch it off? My real concern relates to something called perceptual distortion.
The human brain relies on internal sources of information such as thoughts and feelings and external visual and auditory stimulus. Firearms operations can be highly stressful and when facing an armed and dangerous individual the officer’s peripheral vision will involuntarily shut down and they will hone in on the threat. This effect is sometimes known as ‘weapon focus’ or more commonly ‘tunnel vision. In stressful or traumatic situations some degree of perceptual distortion is inevitable.
Two witnesses viewing the same incident are very likely to provide accounts which differ. This raises such questions such as, if a firearms officer shoots someone should they be allowed to view the video to aid their recollection of the incident before they make their written statement? If they are not allowed to do so there is a good chance that elements of the officer’s account may differ from the video and the feeling amongst firearms officers is that this will result in much punching of the air in High Holborn.
There is no doubt that cameras are coming to a cop near you and overall I believe this to be a good thing but post event, in the firearms arena, an understanding and acceptance of perceptual distortion is essential otherwise cameras and guns could be a toxic combination.
Deputy Chief Constable of West Mercia Police and national lead for the police service on armed policing