Police Body Camera Footage: Big Brother Turns A Blind Eye?

I was dismayed this week to read the comments of one of the country’s most senior Police Officers, the Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Sir Steve House, who was encouraging his fellow Officers at the Police Superintendents Association to be “more discriminating” when it comes to releasing Body Camera footage.

Whilst I will pause to applaud his honesty – Sir Steve admitted his motivation was to prevent the Police from “looking bad” – I am concerned that his calls for footage to be withheld except “in extremis” will only reinforce a culture of obstruction, delay and lack of transparency when it comes to legitimate requests for the release of this footage, whether that request comes from the general public, the media – or those individuals who have been on the ‘receiving end’ of Police violence.

As matters stand, a number of my clients involved in high-profile cases against the Met have had their very reasonable requests for early release of body camera footage frustrated and delayed by the Met’s Information Rights Unit, which displays a tendency to hide behind jargon rather than facts.

The automatic response of most Police Forces to a request for release of body camera footage by a person who is pursuing a complaint against the Force, is to claim exemption under Data Protection laws which allow refusal of a Subject Access request for data where such release would “prejudice an official or legal inquiry, investigation or procedure” – Section 44(4)(a)(b)(c)of the DPA 2018 (that’s a whole thicket of sub- clauses to hide behind isn’t it?).

How would the release of video footage to complainants in any way ‘prejudice’ the complaint investigation however? Would it not in fact assist in the investigation by allowing the complainant to see that footage and comment upon it early in the process? (It is hard to imagine the Police withholding video footage from a victim of crime until they had decided whether or not the criminal suspect should be charged). When the Met refuses to allow a mother access to the body camera footage of an armed police raid on her house (in which she and her children, including her 12 year old son had guns trained on them), they hide behind the ‘standard line’ of not wanting to cause prejudice to the complaint investigation, without being able to offer a single specific example of how allowing my client to see that footage would be ‘prejudicial’ to the fair outcome of her complaint. Rather, it is the Met’s defensive and obstructive conduct in this regard, which causes my client to – rightfully, in my opinion – fear that the investigation is, in fact, prejudiced against her and in favour of the Officers, from the outset.

Comments from Met leadership, like those of Sir Steve House, are not helping a culture of what I consider to be deliberate delay and obfuscation on the part of the Police – the exact opposite of what the Met should be doing in order to truly live up to its mission statement of “Earning the trust and confidence of every community…”

Or perhaps that mission statement is just ‘jargon’ as well?

In a world in which officers are routinely equipped with these cameras, there should be greater transparency and a greater willingness to show both the good and the bad, for the greater health of Policing culture and the trust people place in that essential institution. 

It is not right that the Police should selectively disclose only the camera footage that they want, allowing officers’s misdeeds to be hidden. This would be to throw away the benefits that would accrue from this technology if people can indeed trust that their interactions in Police encounters are being recorded and preserved on cameras, and will in the future be easily accessible. This helps Police Officers as much as members of the public: false complaints against officers will be easily quashed, and equally it offers protection to people from police violence and misuse of powers.

In my experience, a greater prevalence of Police body camera use is good for everybody. It helps to reassure the public as to Police accountability, and that there will be an objective record of matters which, in the past would have been the domain of ‘one person’s word against two (or more) officers’. This belief is borne out by statistics which show that the introduction of body camera use in recent years led to a dramatic reduction in –

        (a)   Taser use (or misuse): during 2017, the first year following the introduction of body cameras for their Officers, West Yorkshire Police recorded a 27% drop in the number of incidents in which tasers were discharged by their Officers (despite there also being a 26% increase in the number of incidents in which tasers were drawn/ aimed that year).

        (b) The overall number of complaints against Officers: a 2016 study by Cambridge University showed a 93% annual reduction in complaints following the roll out of body cameras (albeit the study involved both UK and US Police forces).

I think there is little doubt that these statistics indicate that Police officers are better at policing their own conduct, when they know that what they are doing and saying is being caught on camera. I would echo here the comments of the academic who led the Cambridge research highlighted above: that Officers “become more accountable” – surely a very good thing – “and modify their behaviour accordingly.”

(It was also of note during the study that ‘control groups’ of front line officers from each Force who patrolled without body cameras were also the subject of less complaints, something which Dr Ariel identified as “contagious accountability” – a sign that good practice and changes in policing culture were becoming embedded across each Force as the number of cameras increased, and Officers adapted to life under frequent, objective scrutiny).

Police leadership should therefore be encouraging greater use of these cameras, and greater transparency through ease of access to this footage, not a culture of keeping the footage under lock and key unless it suits Police purposes. Sadly, rather than learning the positive lessons from this, an officer of the seniority of Sir Steve House now seems to want to ‘turn the clock’ back on accountability, by keeping body camera footage for ‘Police eyes only’ in most cases. In my opinion, this would significantly undermine the benefits of ‘camera culture’ as it would lead some Officers to act more recklessly, rudely or violently, knowing that there was a much reduced likelihood of any incriminating footage seeing the light of day.

By way of example; one of the key features of the case of my client Anthony, highlighted in my previous blog – a black man subject to a negative stop and search which left him requiring an A&E visit after his elbow was fractured – is that none of the Officers, despite initiating the contact with Anthony on the basis that they apparently suspected him to be a drugs dealer, bothered to activate their cameras until after Anthony had been taken to the floor, his arm broken, and handcuffs applied. This in my view is completely unacceptable, the entire incident should have been recorded from the outset and my client allowed access to that footage from day one of his complaint (as it is, almost a year later, the Police are still refusing to release the footage). Surely everyone would agree that this case is a perfect example as to why there should be stricter rules governing Police conduct to require greater use of cameras coupled with greater ease of access to the resulting footage, in the interests of everyone’s safety and the essential maintenance of trust and respect in the Police. Selective, arbitrary use of cameras by front line officers, and then highly defensive comments, encouraging restrictive and secretive practices, like those of the Deputy Commissioner have the opposite effect.

As someone who has viewed hundreds of hours of Police camera footage during the course of my career, I also don’t buy the line Sir Steve House was pushing; that releasing footage may mislead the general public. People aren’t stupid; they know what they are looking at and if Officers’ behaviour on video looks “unnecessary or heavy handed” then the truth is, that it probably is just that.

I would urge the Police leadership to move in the opposite direction to that apparently advised by the Met’s Deputy Commissioner, and embrace this opportunity to be more transparent, fair and accountable in their dealings with the public, particularly those numerous members of  the public who often very legitimately believe they have been wronged by abusive, oppressive or heavy handed Police conduct.

Step into the future; don’t hide in the past.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.