Are Body Worn Cameras really useful?

Big Brother Watch Team / May 17, 2016

Body Worn Cameras, it is claimed, are designed to improve behaviour.  Behaviour of both the public and police officers.  The use of the cameras we are told makes it less likely for members of the public to physically assault officers and for officers to use force in return. It’s something often repeated by experts in the field (civil liberties campaigners included). Awkwardly though it may not actually be true.

The use of Body Worn Cameras has spread rapidly in the UK, with the vast majority of police forces trialling or fully rolling them out over the past year.  By the end of 2016 the Met Police alone will be using 20,000 cameras.  Where the police lead other organisations will follow.  We are hearing more and more about Body Worn Cameras being used by train guards, council enforcement officers and prison officers.

The perceived benefits of using them, however, are now in the spotlight as a new study by the University of Cambridge has highlighted some interesting issues surrounding the use by and the reaction to those wearing the cameras.

The study looked at the use of Body Worn Cameras in eight forces across the UK and the US over a total of 2.2 million officer hours. It found that rates of assaults were 15% higher against officers using the technology during a shift, compared to officers who weren’t using the cameras.

The study didn’t offer one concrete reason as to why this may be the case but presented a number of theories.

One theory suggested that officers may be more likely to report instances of assault as they now have “objective” evidence to support their claim, another that officers may be less “assertive” as they knew that their behaviour was being monitored by the camera.  And then there is the issue of whether the cameras were switched on and off or left on for the duration of the shift.

Dr Barak Ariel, of the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, one of the report’s authors, pondered that “If an officer decides to announce mid-interaction they are beginning to film, for example, that could provoke a reaction that results in use of force”.

All these theories provide a fascinating insight into people’s behaviour when either using the technology or being faced with it as a surveillance capability.

Whilst it is tempting to concentrate on dealing with the operational processes which should be considered when using Body Worn Cameras; such as issues regarding the retention time, storage and accessibility to the data  it is important that time be given to explore further the more complex behavioural concerns which occur.  Because if Body Worn Cameras are going to be seen as a benefit to people in positions of authority in all areas of society, these complex behavioural issues cannot be overlooked.

We all know that surveillance can change the way we behave; be it a “chilling effect” on what we say or a more cautious approach towards what we do.  But what is fascinating about this research is the instinctive negative reaction people experience when they believe they are private but are then told they are being watched has been raised.

Whilst the researchers urge caution at too deep an analysis of their findings, the theories they pose should be explored further. We live increasingly in a connected society, whilst surveillance can be used to aid all sorts of society’s ills, the psychological impact may be less beneficial in the long term.