Next time you’re in the UK, look closely at a police officer’s uniform. You’ll likely spot a small lens and a label saying audio-visual recording.
These are body-worn cameras and the Irish government proposes to introduce them for An Garda Síochána.
Supporters say that where police wear cameras they can gather important evidence for criminal prosecutions, assist with police accountability, and potentially de-escalate harmful situations.
Critics point to the significant breach of privacy that the cameras pose given their close range, the lack of research proving their effectiveness, and the damage that constant surveillance can do to mutual trust between police and communities. There’s also, of course, the right to feel free on the streets of your own city.
As part of the current process of reforming An Garda Síochána, the Commission on the Future of Policing recommended in its September 2018 report that An Garda Síochána should develop a plan to deploy body-worn cameras.
The government included this in their implementation plan in December 2018. The Department of Justice recently began a consultation process on enabling legislation.
But do these body-worn cameras actually improve policing? Or is their threat to privacy and other rights unjustified by sound evidence?
A Surveilled City
We tend from time to time to look across the water and emulate our neighbours’ approaches, without properly considering whether it’s right for Ireland. Do we really want Dublin to mimic London-levels of surveillance?
Almost every street in London is under CCTV surveillance, either public or private. The Brookings Institute estimates that there are 420,000 cameras in London – a higher ratio of cameras to people than Beijing, and surveillance in the UK is expected to increase.
Now, with body-worn cameras, you could be recorded at close range – what you’re doing and what you’re saying – if a police officer so decides. With the proposed introduction of facial recognition technology, the potential for intrusive data gathering in the UK is beyond concerning, and critics are increasingly vocal.
On CCTV, Dublin is not far behind. CCTV cameras are on Dublin buses, in lifts, in shops, and on the streets. It seems to fit with a growing view that surveillance technology is the panacea for all society’s problems. It’s not.
Surveillance breaches your privacy rights and it also potentially changes your behaviour. People feel less free to be themselves: they control their expression, their body language. It may even affect whether they take part in democratic actions like protests.
The feeling that somebody is watching you makes some people feel less secure, not more secure. Not everyone trusts the ‘state’s gaze’.
And there is little evidence that CCTV equipment actually deters crime.
Body-worn cameras are more controversial than CCTV cameras because they combine close-range filming and audio recording too.
When the Commission on the Future of Policing recommended them for An Garda Síochána, they said that “[m]odern policing organisations around the world have found that body cameras can help improve front line capability with more accurate recording of incidents, expedite analysis, enhance situational awareness, and sometimes protect police from harm”.
But other police forces operate in very different contexts.
In the USA, police carry guns and have been embroiled in controversy after controversy over the misuse of force, in particular against minority groups.
Some civil-liberty groups in the USA, while warning that their use must be narrow and carefully scrutinised, believe that accountability for the use of guns can be increased if police wear body cameras.
The fact that An Garda Síochana are unarmed immediately undermines the argument for a general roll-out of body-worn cameras to all Gardaí, similar to the roll-out in the UK or USA.
Of course, the Gardaí can use batons and pepper spray. So the argument for reducing the misuse of force might still be made. But research both in the USA and in the UK has found that body-worn cameras do not necessarily have an impact on the use of force.
What the Studies Say
A study in Rialto, California of 54 police officers in 2012 had suggested that body-worn cameras do reduce the use of force.
It’s often cited to justify their roll-out, including by the private companies who sell them. It was also cited by the Garda Representative Association as recently as June.
However, since then, that study’s own authors have accepted that other factors were probably at play. There has been inconsistent and inconclusive evidence generated in later studies of other police forces too, they said.
What one of the key researchers in the Rialto project said in 2016 is worth quoting in full:
“The results of the Rialto experiment would lead you to think that police body cameras are an unequivocal success. In Rialto they were, but studies my colleagues and I have since conducted elsewhere require that I add a rather large note of caution.
“You see, if you consider the 10 other places where we have now completed tests of such cameras, you would conclude that their overall effect on police use of force is a wash: In some instances they help, in some they don’t appear to change police behavior, and in other situations they actually backfire, seemingly increasing the use of force.”
Research published in 2017, conducted by a mix of academics, political scientists and police representatives in Washington DC on 2,000 officers – so a larger cohort that the Rialto study – found that the effects of body cameras on police and civilian behaviour were too small to be “statistically significant”.
Another argument for body-worn cameras is that they provide reliable evidence of crimes, which can be used for successful prosecutions.
Freedom-of-information requests to both police and prosecutors in the UK by the NGO Big Brother Watch in 2017, were met with the response that no data was available to prove this. A study funded by the US Department of Justice also refers to the lack of reliable research data proving this.
A video recording of an incident might of course provide one additional source of evidence for prosecutions, but such footage will always be open to interpretation, and, like all evidence, subject to testing in court.
The angle and range of the camera will inevitably be limited. What is captured will be controlled both by what the police officer decides to aim at and by the length of time the camera records for. Because of this, its use as an evidence-gathering tool will be inherently limited.
Proponents say that wearing cameras by police officers can help de-escalate violent incidents, including of a domestic nature. Where people are in an emotionally charged situation, it seems unlikely that the knowledge that they are being recorded will permeate their conscience to a more significant level than the presence of a police officer.
A study by the Scottish government heard that convicted offenders do not perceive cameras as a threat, particularly where alcohol is involved.
Whether footage captured in a person’s home should be used in court is also highly controversial. It can involve assumptions regarding what a victim may or may not want.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), where I work, considers that entering a person’s home wearing a body camera poses a serious interference with the right to privacy, family life and Irish constitutional protections for the inviolability of the home.
It would question whether such interference could ever be justified.
The Social Costs
There is also a social cost to being constantly under surveillance. It may have negative effects on both members of the Gardaí and the communities they police.
The Commission on the Future of Policing emphasised that reforms to An Garda Síochána should create a force focussed on community policing.
But if they are under constant scrutiny themselves, individual Garda members may feel under pressure to react in a way that doesn’t best serve the interests of the community. They may feel they have to arrest someone where their better judgment suggests it is not necessary, for example.
Further equipping the Gardaí with powerful tools may exacerbate existing power imbalances and may erode trust. Realistically, privacy infringements resulting from body-worn cameras are more likely to occur in lower socio-economic areas, which might give rise to accusations of discrimination.
Where the Data Goes
It would cost huge amounts of money to process, protect, and delete the vast amounts of personal data that will be collected by body cameras – and, potentially, to respond to data requests by members of the public.
Crucial questions of who can watch footage, when they can watch it, how it will be stored and for how long will all take time and money to address.
Infringements of the right to privacy, and the right to freedom of expression, are lawful only if they are carried out to achieve a legitimate aim, are necessary in a democratic society, and are proportionate to that aim.
While preventing, detecting and prosecuting crime are all legitimate aims, can the breach of privacy and other rights that body cameras threaten be justified?
Given the absence of clear and consistent evidence from other jurisdictions – or, indeed, from within Ireland – that the use of body-worn cameras contributes to police accountability or improves outcomes in the criminal justice system, ICCL is not convinced that they are.
One of the leading expert researchers on body-worn cameras, a lecturer at Cambridge University, Barak Ariel, advises that that police forces should partner with independent researchers to test the effectiveness of cameras in their jurisdiction before considering their roll-out.
The Irish government should take heed.