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A body worn camera. Photo: iStock.

The long view on BWCs

Body-worn cameras for police are touted as a tool for greater transparency and accountability and improved officer and public safety, but recent research shows not all those expectations have been, or even can be, met.

Body-worn cameras for police are touted as a tool for greater transparency and accountability and improved officer and public safety, but recent research shows not all those expectations have been, or even can be, met.

Despite interest in body-worn cameras (BWCs) from Police Association members and calls from the public for their introduction, New Zealand Police has only ever got as far as a draft review of the technology in 2019.

A proposed trial of BWCs by police in Lower Hutt was quietly shelved, for reasons unknown, after an interim report.

Last month, Police said it was continuing to monitor the use of body-worn cameras by other agencies but had no plans for their immediate introduction.

There has been rapid uptake of BWCs by many law enforcement agencies worldwide over the past decade, but as various issues have emerged with the technology, Police here remains wary.

“If on-body cameras were to be more closely considered by Police,” it says, “among the complexities that would need to be resolved would be the appropriate storage, security and management of any footage captured, which would be significant in volume. There are also legal, privacy and other considerations that would need to be worked through.”

Association members, on the back of a remit from the Christchurch committee to last year’s annual conference, are still keen on further investigation of BWCs as another tool for frontline policing.

Here’s a snapshot of recent findings.

Safety

One of the most recent studies on BWCs was a comprehensive review last year by the non-profit international social science research group, the Campbell Collaboration. It summarised evidence from 30 studies on the effects of cameras on officer and citizen behaviours.

Led by Cynthia Lum – a professor in criminology, law and society at George Mason University’s Centre of Evidence-Based Crime Policy in the United States – the review found that the use of BWCs by police in the US, Britain and Australia did not have clear or consistent effects on officer or citizen behaviours.

The most significant finding from the review was that, across the 30 studies, the average drop in the number of citizen complaints against police officers was 16.6 per cent.

The experience of police in Australia, as previously reported to the Police Association, is that not only do the number of complaints drop, but, of those that are made, many are not upheld or are quickly withdrawn once video footage is available, drastically reducing the length of time needed to resolve complaints.

The Lum review found that officer use of force dropped 6.8 per cent while a BWC was on, as did their arrest behaviours (3.9%), though the review says the evidence for drawing conclusions from these figures is insufficient.

In terms of citizen behaviour, assaults or resistance against police officers wearing BWCs dropped on average 15.9 per cent.

The study did note, however, that the level of discretion an officer used when hitting “record” on a BWC (being able to control when to record versus being required to record all the time) could correlate to the amount of force used during arrests, though more assessment was needed.

This was also true of members of the public who recorded interactions with police, as they often did not capture the full picture of the lead-up to a video.

Cost

Axon body cameras, used by officers overseas and by some government agencies in New Zealand, cost more than $1000 each. Adding to the bill is the cost of storing the data captured by the cameras.

In 2019, some US jurisdictions removed BWCs from frontline police kit due to the cost of data storage.

In 2020, the Baltimore Police department spent US$35.1 million (NZ$50m) to store data collected by its 2500 sworn staff, four times the amount it had cost in 2016.

As well as the extra physical space required for camera-docking stations, additional staff may be needed to maintain data storage and handle requests from the public to view footage.

Privacy and transparency

Section 47 of the New Zealand Search and Surveillance Act 2012 appears to provide legal cover for officers to make an overt or covert recording when carrying out their duties, though, according to police, further legislation may be required.

Under Police’s own policy, video recordings are already made by officers in family harm situations using their Police-issued phones.

For recording in public spaces or private residences where some people may not want to be recorded, Axon’s video software allows for faces to be blurred to protect a person’s identity.

Who can access the data captured by BWCs is a topic of debate. Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon suggested earlier this year that it should be left up to an independent body to oversee the collection and maintenance of the data. However, most police jurisdictions worldwide have that responsibility and are bound by policy and regulatory obligations.

In South Australia, officers who capture the data can view and tag the footage for any evidentiary purposes, but only a supervisor can delete it.

Concerns were raised in Australia after the subject of a BWC recording requested to see footage and was denied access to it.

In New Zealand, government departments that use BWCs are bound by the Official Information Act and privacy laws that do allow the public to access footage on a case-by-case basis.

How long data can be stored needs to be in line with Official Information Act legislation, although, if it is needed for evidentiary purposes, that could be months or years.

New Zealand government departments

Corrections has been using BWCs since 2015, following an internal trial, as an overt recording device in controlled environments (prisons) that already use surveillance equipment. It is currently in the process of rolling out new Axon body cameras to its staff.

Corrections chief custodial officer Neil Beales says the BWCs continue to be a useful tool to support prison staff.
“They de-escalate situations and, if that doesn’t work, they capture clear evidence of the build-up to an incident, which encourages more comprehensive reviews and lessons learnt.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries is in the process of giving its fishery officers Axon BWCs, primarily, it says, for safety reasons because they often deal with people who carry knives or can be confrontational.

MPI says BWCs will assist in evidence gathering, with officers still required to take notes as their primary evidence-gathering tool.

Both departments say they have developed robust policies for BWCs and believe they will improve staff safety while maintaining public trust in the data they capture and store.

For Police, recent shootings, firearms incidents and assaults have put the spotlight on frontline safety. Based on current evidence, it seems clear BWCs would be an additional tool to potentially de-escalate confrontational situations and would be useful for evidence gathering and training situations.

The footage could be used by instructors to assess officer and citizen actions and find ways to improve outcomes. This could also assist Police when making policy and strategy decisions for frontline staff.

A decrease in public complaints and internal police investigations also has obvious benefits.

Some cameras are capable of livestreaming, which is potentially useful in AOS callouts.

Other features include the ability to capture up to two minutes of footage before the record button is hit, providing greater context to an event.

However, the high costs of BWCs and limited conclusive research on their effectiveness may remain the biggest unresolved issues for Police decision makers.

Pros

  • Reduced complaints against officers and quicker resolution of complaints
  • Improved safety for officers and members of the public
  • Evidence gathering
  • Training aid
  • Greater transparency

Cons

  • Cost
  • Storage
  • Limited research on the behavioural changes
  • caused by BWCs
  • Logistics of a nationwide rollout of BWCs 

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