Justice Turns a Blind Eye: When Police Fail to Turn on Their Body Cameras

The Problem

Given the prevalence of Police body-worn cameras on our modern-day streets, what duty should Officers be under to ensure that they activate these cameras during all confrontations/ investigations, to ensure the protection, and equal treatment under the law, of both officers and civilians? Do we need more robust disciplinary treatment of officers who fail to record such crucial interactions as a search or arrest, given that policies requiring the filming of such events seem only to be paid ‘lip service’ by Professional Standards investigations when officers fail to comply without a good reason? And do we indeed need better technology to eliminate human error/ misfeasance and ensure that Body Worn Videos don’t just show half of the picture, and aren’t used simply to serve the interests of Police Officers?

Although I have been aware of this problem for a long time, two cases I am currently dealing with involving Merseyside Police have focused my mind on the issue. Let me outline some of the facts for you.

Connor’s Case

Connor, then aged 19, was on a night out with friends in Liverpool City Centre in January 2020.

Connor was standing on Fleet Street talking to a friend when he was suddenly seized from behind by a Police Officer (PC Graves) who marched him over to a Police van, where other Officers were assembled. 

Three Officers – believed to be Police Sergeant Downes and Police Constables Graves and Wallace – then subjected Connor to a body search, allegedly on suspicion of possession of drugs.  Connor was entirely innocent, and the search was naturally negative, although the Officers repeatedly asserted that Connor must have drugs on him and demanded that he ‘give them up’.  Connor felt that the Officers were treating him in an unprofessional, contemptuous and demeaning way.

The Officers allowed Connor to leave but as he walked away, he used the word “dick head” once, towards the Officers. His loss of temper in this regard was largely caused by the Officers’ repeated, false accusations that he was in possession of drugs.

Connor was immediately overpowered by the Officers, who took him to the ground, handcuffed him and now placed him under arrest for allegedly being ‘drunk and disorderly’ (although Connor says the Officers failed to explain the basis of the arrest at the time, despite the fact they were legally obliged to do so).

It is notable that when the Officers had first approached and searched Connor only minutes before, there had been no suggestion by any of them that Connor was behaving in a ‘disorderly’ manner. The decision to arrest Connor appears to have been an impulsive and vindictive act by the Officers simply because he had expressed his frustration towards them, at what he legitimately believed to be an unlawful stop and search, with a single swear word (and not one, it need hardly be added, likely to make most experienced Police Officers blush or bat an eyelid).

Nevertheless, Connor was taken into Custody and detained for several hours for allegedly “offending public decency”.

Connor naturally brought a complaint in regards to the offence of that evening, which resulted in an admission by the Police that PC Wallace had conducted an improper stop and search of Connor as she had (at the very least) failed to complete a Stop and Search Form until 4 February 2020, over 2 weeks after the event.  Merseyside Police ultimately accepted “No [search] record existed and in the absence of a complaint would likely never have existed.”

Not only had PC Wallace not completed the correct paperwork (which should have been filled out at the time, whether electronically or in writing, and a copy provided to Connor) but on Connor’s account she had also failed to deliver the “GOWISELY” information identifying herself and explaining the powers and the purpose for which she was subjecting Connor to temporary detention and search, which I have discussed at length in a previous Blog.

Furthermore, and of great significance, was the fact that all of the Officers who interacted with Connor were wearing the now standard issue body cameras, and yet none of them activated those cameras despite the fact that the Officers initiated the incident –  i.e. they were not ‘taken by surprise’ by a fast moving chain of events outwith their control.  It was the Officers who made the decision to approach and search Connor, and then to arrest him, and they manifestly would have had time to activate their cameras. 

Their failure to do so has robbed Connor of crucial evidence which could have helped to establish his innocence in the face of the charge of drunk and disorderly behaviour, and would certainly have catalogued the full extent of PC Wallace’s illegal Stop and Search upon him. It would have verified one way or the other the allegations which Connor is now pursuing through the Complaint and civil Claim process against Merseyside Police – including the Officers’ rude and arrogant demeanour and their use of force upon Connor.

In other words, it would have saved a lot of time and money, and potentially a lot of heartache, for everybody involved – Connor and all of the Police Officers.

Despite the fact that the Complaint investigation by Merseyside Police unequivocally established that PCs Graves and Wallace had breached Police Policy by failing to activate their body worn cameras, this was criticised only in the mildest of terms by the Professional Standards Department who simply identified it as requiring a “learning outcome” for the Officers. The PSD investigator gave no consideration at all to how the Officers apparently wilful failure in this regard had undermined Connor’s ability to hold them to account for their alleged misconduct.

Take for example the Complaint investigator’s assertion that “There is no evidence to support the allegation that officers have used inappropriate comments or in any way goaded or antagonised [Connor] which has led to his arrest…”. In fact, if the Officers had complied with Merseyside Police Policy there would have been video footage to conclusively prove or disprove the same; it was the Officers who were the ‘gatekeepers’ of that potential gold mine of evidence, and they who were now benefiting – on Connor’s account – from keeping the door firmly shut upon it.

I personally think it is outrageous that Police Officers are not disciplined, in any meaningful way, for failing to active their cameras in these scenarios.  There is simply no excuse.  The activation of a body camera is the work of split seconds.  I would go as far as to say that in this day and age, any Stop & Search –  and, indeed, arguably arrest – which is not catalogued by a body camera recording should be deemed prima facie unlawful unless there is a very good reason why at least one of the Officers involved (and it is rare for a single Officer to have to deal with such events on their own) did not activate their camera.

Jack’s case

Another very similar matter involving a flagrant breach by Merseyside Police Officers of their own policies and procedures is the case of my client Jack.

As has been highlighted above, Merseyside Police have a written Policy which states that Officers MUST record stop & search encounters (unless an intimate search is involved) and that this is done in pursuit of the laudable objectives of “capturing the best possible evidence” and “promoting public reassurance.” What punishment was handed out in yet another case where Officers failed to do so…? You can probably guess the answer!

Jack, then aged 16 years old, was cycling home when an unmarked vehicle pulled up alongside him and a woman exited the vehicle and grabbed hold of Jack.

A man then also exited the vehicle and joined the woman, and in a state of shock, Jack realised that they were Police Officers.

Jack before had never had any dealings with the Police, and especially in view of his young age, felt intimidated and overwhelmed. 

The male and female Officers subjected Jack to a ‘pat down search’ and then allowed him to go on his way – although failed to issue the obligatory stop/search form to him.

Jack’s mother subsequently lodged a complaint on his behalf regarding this incident and was provided with a copy of the Stop/Search Record which turned out to be entirely inaccurate – it falsely suggested that Jack rather than being on his bicycle, had been a passenger in a vehicle that smelt of cannabis, and that Jack himself had been found in possession of cannabis. 

When Jack’s mother, who thankfully believed her son’s account rather than that of ‘official’ Police documentation, challenged this – Merseyside Police held their hands up and admitted that the record was entirely inaccurate and stated that Jack’s details had been inadvertently mixed up with those of another individual who had been subjected to a Stop/Search by the same Officers.

Clearly however, it was deeply distressing for Jack and his mother to have to live for a period of time with these false allegations hanging over Jack, and for them to continue to have to deal with the persistent concern that perhaps not all of this wholly inaccurate record, associating Jack with criminal drug use, has been properly rectified and removed from all Police systems and records. 

Once again, neither of the Officers who interacted with this teenage boy had seen fit to operate their body cameras. PC Green claimed that she had lost her body camera and was awaiting another one; PC Gregory accepted that he had his camera on him at the time of the Stop of Jack, but asserted that he could not activate it because it was in his pocket – you will be reassured to know that the Officer has since “reflected” on this and decided it may be more “appropriate” for him to wear his camera on his lanyard from now on. He faced no disciplinary sanction for this, although it was noted that the Officer’s line manager would “review and monitor” PC Gregory’s “future performance in the area of stop and search” – a statement of the type of appraisal that I would presume all Officers are supposed to be subject to in any event! The tone of the Police’s response to the complaint on this issue suggested that this clear breach of Policy was, to those tasked with governing Merseyside Police’s standards of professional behaviour – ‘no big deal’.

Once again, this is evidence of a casual disregard by the Police of both their own rules and of Jack’s rights and dignity as a citizen (and a child at that) who was being subjected to the Police’s extraordinary powers of detention/imprisonment, even if only temporarily.

Incidents such as this lead me to suspect that Merseyside Police (and in all probability Police Forces generally) have many Officers who are routinely failing to record Stop and Search interactions with members of the public.  This might of course be hard to prove on a statistical analysis, as it also appears that on such occasions there is a risk not only of the Police not activating their body cameras, but of them also failing to complete Stop and Search Forms – accurately or at all.

How many other individuals have been subject to ‘ghost’ searches in such a manner? 

The Police have in their personal body cameras a  simple tool which, by giving Professional Standards investigators, lawyers, judges and juries ‘eyes’ on the interactions through which these Officers police our streets, can enlighten and raise the standards and fairness of the entire Policing system.

Provided they turn it on.

(All names have been changed).

This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Part 2 to follow next week.

Author: iaingould

Actions against the police solicitor (lawyer) and blogger.

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