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Body Worn Cameras: Policing in the Surveillance Age

One of the most contentious issues in global policing today surrounds the use of body worn cameras (BWV) by police officers in the pursuit of their duties. The body camera is a small device, attached to the officers clothing, helmet, or glasses, which records the officer’s interactions with the public. Proponents of the measure argue that body cameras can improve the quality of evidence acquired by police officers during incidents, effectively cut down time-consuming paperwork, and engender a more trusting relationship between public and police. In the United States, the controversial deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York have caused rioting, escalating tensions over issues of race and police accountability, and placed the body camera at the centre of an explosive national debate over policing.

In the aftermath of these incidents, much of the conversation surrounding body cameras has become focused on police accountability. The technology was initially developed more with a mind to improving evidence gathering and efficiency, however. Originally adapted by Danish police, the first significant case study in the use of body cameras was undertaken in the UK and adopted by the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary in 2005. Utilized primarily as part of their Domestic Violence Enforcement Campaign, a Home Office report later concluded that the camera system “had the ability to significantly improve the quality of the evidence provided by police officers at incidents.” By 2010, over 40 UK police districts were using body cameras to varying degrees, and studies continued to show apparent benefits to the adoption of the devices. A 2011 project concluded that the systems increased public confidence and early guilty pleas, reduced fear of crime and assaults on police officers, and leads to an all-around annual saving at an estimated minimum of £400,000.

In the last couple of years, the conversation surrounding the cameras has shifted rapidly to their use in monitoring police behaviour and resolving public complaints of brutality and malpractice. The August, 2014 shooting of black youth Michael Brown by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, was followed by a series of similar incidents in the US which have lead to increased calls for mandatory use of body cameras. In December, President Obama announced proposals which would require Congress spend 75 million over a three year period in order to purchase 500,000 recording devices. Following the more recent death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Hilary Clinton called for all departments to equip their men with body cams: “That will improve transparency and accountability, and protect good people on both sides of the lens”, she argued, adding that for “for every tragedy caught on tape, there are surely more that go unrecorded.”

The issues raised by the use of body cameras in policing are complex and controversial. Matthew Feeney, a policy analyst for Washington-based Cato Institute, described body cams as an “example of technology moving faster than regulation and legislation.” Lawmakers across the States will now have to decide just how much of the recordings from these cameras the public should be entitled to see. Since the beginning of the year, sixteen states have passed laws to limit the release of footage though open record laws. The attitude of police officers themselves towards the cameras seems to vary greatly. Here in Ireland, where An Garda Síochána enjoys a generally less contentious relationship with the public, there is considerably less impetus towards using body cameras for the sake of accountability. Nevertheless, the arguments pro and con must be carefully considered, as we enter a era where police work must adapt itself to a world of omnipresent cameras and surveillance devices.


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