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Investigation into body cameras finds nagging challenges for UK police

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An E&T investigation finds gaps in research on the benefits of police body-worn cameras, as well as shortcomings in the reporting of complaints against officers wearing them.

Are body worn cameras (BWCs) effective? Ask any copper on the street and the answer is unlikely to be no. When research published by Cambridge University in 2016 showed the ability to cut complaints against the police it was a boon for BWC manufacturers. Pundits said no other measure had led to such a change in the number of complaints, while London’s Metropolitan Police (Met) Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said people are more likely to plead guilty “when they know we have captured the incident”. 

The finding was a gift for companies like Axon, Reveal Media and others, firms that subsequently sold more and larger contracts to law enforcement agencies. Public and political support has led to broader application elsewhere: schools have started trialling BWCs to aid safety and monitor behaviour, while BWC-equipped rail staff now record assaults. But is the case closed?  

A substantial increase in investments by UK law enforcement agencies would suggest so, and politicians now openly advocate for it. In the UK, body-worn cameras are more prevalent than ever. However, an E&T investigation re-opened the case-files and brought to light a more nuanced picture. Further research is needed to make the connection between the reduction in complaints and use of body-worn cameras, with experts saying investments may be squandered if infrastructure does not guarantee subsequent processing of footage that could help train and change behaviour among officers. Transparency and trust between the public and police forces are still at stake. Top of the list of concerns is a lack of understanding of how many complaints are received regarding officers wearing BWCs.

Cumulative investments in BWC technology by selected UK police forces

Image credit: E&T, selected police forces

Findings from a nationwide freedom-of-information (FOI) campaign suggest many police forces have no idea how many members of the public have made formal complaints. Among these are some that have invested more than £500,000 between 2014 and 2018. West Yorkshire Police, Essex Police and Wiltshire Police, for example, were unable to come up with specific statistics.  In total, 12 police forces were unable to confirm details. One reason was that the records are buried in a haystack of data, with E&T being told it would be too cumbersome to dig them out. Of the 16 forces that did report statistics, seven said they either received one or nil complaints last year.  

The Met’s BWC trial from 2014 suggested that use of cameras reduced the number of allegations made against officers. However, it’s not possible to deduce underlying reasons from the figures, such as any change in behaviour by officers or citizens, or to suggest that legitimate complaints aren’t stifled along with illegitimate ones. It is also difficult to find reliable information about expenditure. There is contract value information for the emergency services on the Bluelight Procurement Database, but when E&T asked Cheshire Constabulary why its reported expenditure on BWC contracts differed from what the BLDP showed, it turned out that three contracts had wrongly been listed twice, while there was also confusion between annual and total spending.

These issues hamper both public scrutiny and data-driven research. However, it’s clear that constabularies are spending more on cameras. For those that openly shared figures, E&T found a similar trajectory for the amount of investment flowing into BWC technology in recent years (see graphic).

Do police forces make effective use of the technology and do investments step in line with how well forces report public complaints? Essex Police invested vast sums in purchasing body cameras – £800,000 in 2018 alone, amounting to £1m since 2016. The force said it was unable to tell how many complaints were made because it does not have “a system field which can easily report this information”. Similarly, Humberside Police in the north of England did not provide information on the number of BWC complaints, yet invested a whopping £713,905 in cameras and docking stations in the last available period of 2018.  

Is this a problem? As police forces and politicians repeatedly report the unequivocal value of cameras in ‘improving accountability around police misconduct’, it might be. We simply don’t have the data to support their claims. There’s at least a possibility that a police officer could turn off the camera when it suits them and turn it back on when they get a hostile response. And even without malicious intent, the camera can never capture the total picture, only what’s in its field of view.

The other question is ‘what’s in it for the public?’ Research says prosecutors rarely bring cases against the police. According to a 2016 study, nearly all responding prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions that used BWCs used them primarily to prosecute citizens. Tony Porter, the UK Surveillance Camera Commissioner (SCC) for England and Wales, says he believes the BWC equipment is fundamental to the modernising of police forces, but he acknowledges challenges: “I do believe it would be valuable to understand the level of complaints raised against police forces concerning the use of body-worn video.”

Police body-worn camera inline

Image credit: Getty Images

Three separate UK studies suggest small declines in crime and disorder since BWCs have been used. However, the four authors of a 2019 BWC meta-study also criticise them as having “weak designs”. It was not clear “whether or why body cameras create additional deterrent effects beyond those of officer presence”. Another stronger quasi-experimental study suggests no general deterrent effects of BWCs on crime.

Porter often sees the value of BWC highlighted in court cases and specifically in domestic violence and abuse cases. With minimal data or metrics available, he says, it would be difficult to understand whether the public backs the technology.

Recently Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary urged chief constables to maximise BWCs’ use to provide greater effectiveness and efficiency. Porter says he genuinely believes the public accepts BWC technology; however it is difficult to prove without the supporting data, he admits.

In what is claimed to be the largest meta-study on the use of BWCs, 70 empirical studies were compared. The results suggest current insight falls short in fully explaining the impact of the technology. Expectations among police leaders and citizens have not yet been realised, the authors wrote. For instance, a lack of data and research into why complaints against officers dropped so rapidly was one concern raised.  

It might be true that there is a change in officer behaviour given that they know they are being recorded, leading to citizens complaining less about them, but the truth may be more complex. Officers themselves may think that BWCs reduce specific types of complaints, such as frivolous, malicious or unfounded ones, because citizens now realise they are being recorded. However, the decline “may indicate a reporting effect or a change in citizen reporting behaviour rather than an effect on officer behaviour or even on the quality of police-citizen interactions”.  

A third possibility is that officers informally negotiate complaints by showing potential complainants or supervisors video footage of the encounter, thus discouraging citizens from pursuing complaints for reasons unrelated to whether the complaint is legitimate. For example the complainant may have been filmed hitting an officer apparently out of the blue, because the video does not show an assault by the officer that provoked the response.

A 2014 trial of BWCs by the Metropolitan Police found they reduced the number of allegations against officers, with those interviewed reporting instances where BWCs changed behaviour. But the Mayor’s Office of Policing and Crime, along with the College of Policing, admit there is little supporting evidence that the quality of the interaction improves between officers and the public when BWCs are involved.

A meta-study by Cynthia Lum and colleagues at the department of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, Virginia, suggests that BWC technologies can often have ‘unintended consequences’ on police forces. For instance, they could “place undue financial burdens on agencies with regard to maintaining the technology and hiring personnel to process videos”.  

David Makin, an associate professor and director of the Complex Social Interactions Lab at Washington State University, argues police forces may have the ability to purchase body-worn cameras yet few have the infrastructure to analyse the footage. If footage is not analysed, its value is limited: “Failure to integrate the technology into organisational practice will relegate it to a cost expenditure and not a cost benefit.”

Makin mentions another area of concern in the United States: the involvement of private companies. “There’s also a move towards having private companies taking over some of the administrative tasks, including providing redaction, transcription, and generally managing the data.” Trusting private companies with sensitive material can backfire, especially if it is not encrypted and held securely.

BWC manufacturer Axon’s UK and Ireland spokesperson Mike Ashby-Clarke explains there is a fine line between what Axon provides and “what we let the police [force] provide. That line is policy.” For instance, Axon provides “train-the-trainer courses on how to work the hardware and how to navigate the user interface on the back-end platform. But when and how the police make use of the body-worn-camera kit is purely up to their own policy. Axon does not prescribe how policy is laid out,” he stresses. 

E&T’s investigation found that West Yorkshire Police invested more than £2.4m between 2013/14 and 2017/18. However, to determine the role of the BWC for each arrest would require a manual read-through of the relevant records – a daunting task considering there were 11,637 arrests made in 2017/2018 alone.  

One solution often bandied about is artificial intelligence (AI) and computer-assisted automation in processing material. But there is scepticism to what degree the public should trust computers. Dan Greene and Genevieve Patterson explored the topic in a report for IEEE Spectrum in 2018. The conclusion was that regulatory requirements should help to ensure AI used by the criminal-justice system is open to scrutiny so that it can be demonstrated to be reliable and free from bias. The authors questioned whether many of the AI capabilities manufacturer Axon proposed were mature enough to be deployed.  

Two years later, human rights advocates are concerned with the next generation of police-worn body cameras and specifically their potential use with facial-recognition systems, where footage could be cross-referenced in real time against a database of suspects. Silkie Carlo, director of the human rights think tank Big Brother Watch, says many police forces have their own guidance but there is a lack of national regulation.

The Surveillance Camera Commissioner, Tony Porter, clarifies that each force follows its own operational guidelines, but it has to be a broad policy as police officers attend millions of incidents across the country and few are the same. There are some checks and balances, however, and a breach of guidelines could expose an officer to internal disciplinary proceedings or other tribunals such as the Investigatory Powers Tribunal.  

In addition, police forces must comply with the 2012 Protection of Freedoms Act when deploying body-worn cameras in accordance with the surveillance camera code of practice. Porter says he is delighted to see two of the largest police forces in the country – the Met Police and Greater Manchester Police – signing up to his “independent certification”. This does, however, leave more than 40 British police forces without certification.  

Porter says the certification helps to reassure the public that BWC use is in line with the best government standards – the Surveillance Camera Code of Practice. He expresses explicit concerns about building the intersection between police body cameras and facial-recognition software. He has previously said he is alarmed by the way overt surveillance from body cameras could become even more invasive than intended, as captured images of people are brought together with advances in facial recognition and then compared against other monitored data about individuals and their movements.  

The use of Big Brother tactics brings with it lots of wide-ranging discussion from protest groups and ethical concerns.

Mike Ashby-Clarke, Axon

Porter is now calling for government inspections into police use of facial-recognition technology. He sees a multitude of problems that demand more robust oversight and regulatory clarity. He also stresses that the government recognised in its 2019 manifesto a need to provide more clarity on legislation and regulatory oversight.  

Manufacturers of body-worn cameras understand they are playing with fire. Ashby-Clarke at Axon confirms that his company is looking at technologies that can overlay body-worn video. An internal ethics board raises some concerns: “We just launched a product which allows you to livestream from body cams. The use of Big Brother tactics by management or storing databases in the backgrounds of personal data all brings with it lots of wide-ranging discussion from protest groups and ethical concerns.”

Another issue for BWCs is who can see the video footage. Last year, the Met Police stopped providing external access to video footage for data protection reasons.  Transparency advocates, including the chair of the Camden Stop and Search Monitoring Group, have expressed concern. They say the ability to view body-worn-camera footage has been the single biggest step forward in police accountability since the formation of the Monitoring Group over 20 years ago.

Without access, the group loses insight into how the police conducts stops and searches. A Met Police trial in 2014 found there was no overall impact of BWC footage on the number or type of stop-and-searches conducted. But without transparency, it is unclear how this can be monitored.  

With technology further evolving and areas where body-worn cameras report for duty becoming larger, more gaps in research may open up. Policy and research may need to consider the intersection between body-worn cameras and other systems, such as facial recognition, and other equipment used by police officers, such as tasers.  

As use of body-worn cameras spills into other walks of life such as schools, backlash and criticism by experts and the public seems more likely.

How much do some police forces pay for body-worn cameras?

E&T’s investigation found wide variations in the unit cost of a camera set-up, though, unsurprisingly, there are economies of scale. It’s also likely that contracts include things like training and support, as well as the actual hardware.

City of London police purchased 423 body-worn cameras from manufacturer Axon, spending £128,000 since 2017. That’s an average of £303 per camera.

The West Midland police said it spent four times as much: £519,000 in 2018/19 for 2,530 cameras, which works out at around £205 camera.

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