How Police Avoid Accountability From Body Worn Cameras

It is several years since I blogged on the introduction of Body Worn Cameras for Police Officers (click here).

At that time, I positively welcomed the introduction of this technology which I felt could help re-establish public confidence in the Police.  The danger I foresaw however was that officers could turn the cameras on and off as they chose rather than there be a mandatory rule that such cameras be turned on during any interaction with a member of the public.

Fast forward to November 2017.  Trials for Body Worn Cameras had been conducted and were seen as a success and so Body Worn Cameras had been extended to most, if not all, front line officers in the Metropolitan Police  and a large number of regional forces including West Midlands Police.  Indeed, in a report dated 7 November 2017, the Strategic Policing and Crime Board for West Midlands Police reported that in partnership within Cambridge University,  they had proof that in cases involving Body Worn Cameras, charges (against suspects) had increased, suspects were more likely to plead guilty early, complaints (against officers) were down and the use of force required to be employed by officers was reduced.

Given those findings, the Board had no doubts  that the benefits to the force from the roll-out of Body Worn Cameras to all front line officers were clear.

All  of this seems perfectly understandable and believable,  BUT “benefit realisation” as the report warned was conditional on high “Body Worn Cameras compliance”, i.e. only if the officers use the technology, will the force see the benefits.

Of interest, a short time before the publication of this report, but after Body Worn Cameras had been issued to all front line officers and those officers had been trained,  5 of West Midlands finest were called out to a report of a ‘domestic’ involving one of my clients.   My client had had an argument with his adult daughters and they called the Police.

Following enquiry, a decision was taken to arrest my client, who I’ll refer to here as Abdul.  Let me stress, neither I nor Abdul have any issue about the decision to arrest; it was justified and lawful. What is in issue is the level of force  used by the officers both on arrest and afterwards at the Police Station.

My client states that upon arrival of the officers at his address, he was midway through a telephone conversation and proceeded down a flight of stairs to meet the officers.

So that he could conclude his telephone conversation (with his sister-in-law) my client sat several steps up from the bottom of the stairs.  As his conversation continued, a female police officer proceeded towards my client and snatched his mobile phone away.  It should be noted that this action was prior to my client being placed under arrest.  Accordingly, my client was well within his rights to complete his telephone call.

As my client stood to his feet, 2 uniformed police officers surged towards him, grabbing him by both arms and manhandled him down the stairs.  My client was shocked by the prematurely aggressive force shown to him.

My client disclosed that he suffered from a previous shoulder injury, but to no avail.  He was then handcuffed in the front position.

My client was taken through the property and to the  police vehicle, parked outside.  Upon arrival, my client was pushed, face first, up against the vehicle while he was searched.  My client did not offer any form of resistance to the officers, at any time.

Following search, my client was shoved into the rear of the police vehicle.

My client was subsequently escorted to his local Police Station where he was booked into custody.  At some point, my client was told to remove a ring from his finger.  My client specifically told the officers that this could not be removed easily and would require some form of lubricant, to loosen the jewellery.  Despite this, the officer then repeatedly tried to remove the ring with brute force, causing my client to sustain a cut to his finger.

Subsequently, I filed a complaint against West Midlands Police as regards what I and my client believe to be the excessive use of force by the arresting officers.

Anyone familiar with Police complaint process will no doubt share  my concerns  as regards the impartiality of that  process and it came as  no surprise to me  that when West Midlands Police published their investigation report,  each and every one of my client’s complaints were rejected.

What was surprising, given the date of incident and given the deployment of Body Worn Cameras to all officers by that time, that none of the 5 officers involved activated their cameras at any time during the incident.

All of the officers disputed my client’s account and so of course, in the absence of Body Worn Camera footage, the officers evidence was preferred to that of my client and his complaint of excessive force used upon arrest was dismissed.

Of course, activation of any one Body Worn Camera would have made “any subsequent investigation more straightforward” but the fact that this did not occur  was excused by the Police on the grounds that  use of Body Worn Cameras was not at the time of incident “culturally embedded”.

I mentioned that my client also complained that excessive use of force was also employed at the Police Station.  My client contacted me shortly after the incident and I went to great lengths to ensure that custody CCTV was preserved (Police Forces have a nasty habit of wiping such footage after 31 days or of otherwise conveniently losing it).

In West Midlands Police’s first investigation report, I was pleased to note that such footage had been preserved and had been viewed.  Sadly however the West Midlands Police Investigator failed to address this aspect of the complaint and so it was necessary to appeal.

On appeal, West Midlands Police did address this aspect of the complaint.  This time however the Investigator forgot that this footage had been preserved and asserted that the footage was “no longer available. Of course, in the absence of any other evidence, my client’s complaint was not upheld on the basis that “the officers performance” was “satisfactory”.  In the circumstances, a further appeal has been lodged reminding West Midlands Police that the custody CCTV footage was preserved and can and should be viewed to properly determine the complaint.

Modern technology (Body Worn Cameras and Custody CCTV) is all very good when deployed, preserved and viewed (!) but this case once again proves that technology is not a panacea and what is really required is a change of culture where Police Forces adopt a robust complaint system that is open and transparent and where Police Officers are genuinely held to account. What a very lop-sided picture we see when only one side in a potential conflict is in control of whether or not to turn the cameras on …

All names changed.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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