Research commissioned by Police Scotland finds that there is widespread public support for officers to wear body cameras when required for all types of incidents, but also warns of the pitfalls that should be avoided.
A team from the Centre for Research into Information, Surveillance and Privacy (CRISP) at the University of Stirling has produced a report on the use of body-worn video (BWV) cameras, based on a literature review and semi-structured interviews with experts on these types of cameras.
The researchers emphasised that, before introducing BWVs, Police Scotland must ensure that there are effective governance and control processes in place, especially with respect to data management.
Professor William Webster from the University of Stirling’s School of Management, who led the work in the report, believes that body-worn video cameras seem like a simple concept, as it is a camera that police carry everywhere, but how it is used influences a complicated set of relationships, starting with the relationship between the citizen and the state. It is important to understand the consequences of this use and how technology shapes behaviour, to be sure that these cameras are used in the interest of society and not just in the interest of the police.
Webster believes that the police like the use of BWVs because they offer protection during police interventions, even more so if these involve risk, as they can help, for example, to de-escalate violence, while also being able to collect evidence in the event of a trial. However, they also put the police under surveillance, as there have been cases in other police forces of law enforcement officers being recorded smoking while on duty or talking on their mobile phones while driving. This also has to be taken into account, given that trust in technology and the police can easily be lost. Clear protocols and training on the use of BWVs should therefore be established.
The research also considers that it should be clear who manages the recordings, given that they are sensitive data of citizens. Along these lines, it asks whether officers should download the recordings at the end of shifts, where they should be downloaded to and where they should be stored, who can access them and what circumstances justify keeping these recordings.
Therefore, it is concluded that there is a need for a monitoring mechanism where recordings are randomly checked, possibly with lay persons, to control how BWVs are used.
He also stresses the importance of organisations such as the police continuing to consult with citizens and academics on the introduction of new technologies.
In this regard, the Chief Superintendent of Police Scotland, Matt Richards, was in favour of introducing BWVs in Scotland’s police force.
Institutionally, it is considered that the introduction of BWVs requires significant financial investment, but has the potential to enhance the vital bond of trust between police and citizens, which underpins their legitimacy.
What researchers and police agree on is that the deployment of BWVs should be ethical and transparent and should be supported and guided by ethical, human rights and civil liberties considerations.