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Police conference considers body-worn cameras

22 October 2015 - By James Greenland

The Police Association believes the wearing of body-mounted cameras by officers on the beat will soon become a major issue.

Around the world frontline police officers wear cameras on their person.

"It's not an issue in New Zealand at the moment.

"But it's going to be," said president Greg O'Connor at the Police Association's 80th annual conference, titled "In the Firing Line", held in Wellington this week.

Body-worn cameras were the "issue of the day" in the USA, and will be here too, so it was essential that police and policymakers considered the implications of adding cameras to police uniforms, he said.

Police currently had no official policy regarding body-worn cameras, mobility manager Inspector Rob Cochrane said.

Police needed to understand the problems they were hoping to address by wearing body cameras, and specifically what technology was needed to meet police requirements, he said.

Anecdotal reports and lessons learned from international police forces, such as the LAPD and the MET, raised some issues that New Zealand police should consider, although the unique policing context and criminal culture in Aotearoa must be recognised before introducing any new policy.

Inspector Cochrane discussed some potential benefits of equipping beat officers with body-worn cameras.

Safety. Cameras would assist police management to know exactly where officers are at any given time, and would allow an objective account of what an officer saw on the job, the situations they were exposed to.

Capturing evidence. Filming arrests or altercations could provide prosecutors with the evidence they needed to convict, whilst avoiding the complication of 'he said-she said' arguments arising in court.

A four month 'proof of concept' trial will be conducted in Palmerston North, with police using iPhone 6's to record evidence during responses to family violence incidents, Inspector Cochrane said.

Behaviour modification. He said this has already been noticed in some police cell blocks, where CCTV cameras have been installed to watch over prisoners and police staff, with the tendency to reduce unhelpful and unprofessional behaviours.

There were potential difficulties to consider, also, before any decisions could be made.

Data gathering and security. Any introduction of a large number of body-worn cameras would require significant amounts of digital data to be captured and stored. Police needed to consider processes and best practices for capturing, storing, transmitting, and securing video data obtained during operations.

There will be chain of custody issues. And issues around what happens to footage once it's captured – where will it 'live', who may access it, where may it go? Will a filmed individual have a right to request access to footage?

Privacy. And of course, there is the fear that the public will consider the introduction of body-worn cameras as equivalent to the rise of "Big Brother" and the 'surveillance state'.

Since 2013 guards at some of New Zealand's most violent prisons have worn cameras on their uniforms, in an attempt to reduce incidents of assault against staff.

Corrections Association president Alan Whitley said some corrections staff were equipped with cameras, with front facing display screens, to capture evidence, and to modify or temper the behaviour of prisoners, who would know they were being filmed.

An issue that quickly surfaced was that staff had been challenged about why their camera had not been turned on to film in certain situations.

Mr Whitley said that sometimes happened when staff were too caught-up in dealing with the incident. Filming was rightly second in priority to staff safety, he said.

Another initial issue was that the cameras would move around as staff moved and would film the sky or floor rather than the individual or incident being dealt with.

It was essential that whatever equipment was used was 'fit for purpose', he said, although a humble 'drop of superglue' had done a good job of keeping SD data storage cards securely in place.

He said only one prisoner since 2013 had appealed to have access to footage taken of him. That was 'bush lawyer' and litigant, prisoner Arthur Taylor.

While cameras seemed to have a positive effect on prisoner behaviour, there were still some assaults experienced by corrections staff.

"It doesn't stop everything," Mr Whitely noted.

Wellington lawyer Katrine Evans, a privacy law specialist, raised a number of legal concerns relating to body-worn cameras, but ultimately said if police understood privacy laws they could be a help rather than a hindrance.

"We are a society of 'snapchatters'. Phones are everywhere, and we carry cameras with us at all times," she said.

"The 'selfie' rules what we do – or what many do.

"Everything is being filmed, and uploaded online before you can say YouTube."

She said it was inevitable, with the pace of technological innovation, that police would eventually don body-worn cameras.

"People in New Zealand trust our police. But that trust can be fragile," she said.

Cameras could help maintain trust, by recording an objective account of a situation.

However, there must be significant thought about what captured footage could be used for.

For example, while those involved in a public street fight likely had no 'expectation of privacy', police might still breach the law if footage of the fight was given to media, or uploaded online.

"The camera is there for a particular purpose," she said, and it was essential to clearly define the bounds of that purpose.

 Sharing footage with media may be legitimate in some situations where public awareness raising was the objective, but police shouldn't underestimate how difficult it could be to completely disguise an individual's identity, for example by pixelating their face.

"They may have a distinctive body shape, or tattoos. People may recognise them."

For Evans, the most significant privacy law-related challenge for police would be the storing and securing of data - where will data be kept? Onshore, offshore, servers, in the cloud? Will it be vulnerable to 'hackers'? What control have police got over the evidence at all times?

Operational rules would also need to be worked out, covering issues such as whether a camera should continuously film, or would it need to be manually turned on. And in what situations? And what would happen if it was not turned on?

Trust could be eroded by a feeling that police may have deliberately not filmed, she said.

Evans suggested an open and honest approach be adopted, to avoid perceptions of a 'Big Brother' police force.

Footage could potentially be used against police themselves if there were allegations of unprofessional behaviour, but that was a part of the bargain.

Because, "once you have cameras, you can't go back".

Last updated on the 22nd October 2015