The tragic death of George Floyd raises the question of whether the UK exists as a just society if police brutality is only seen when a camera happens to be recording?
The current wave of the #BlackLivesMatter movement would not exist without this video, and although the murder of George Floyd was videoed by the police the footage is only peripheral to the incident and crucially would not have led to Derek Chauvin’s much needed charge of second-degree murder.
From this, the UK must learn the necessity for all active police officers to operate with continuously recording body-cams or body-worn video (BWV). If we vest the police with authority in the expectation to protect and serve, they must equally be accountable for abusing such authority. That is why BWV must be wholly implemented into the work of the UK Police force.
Cases of police misconduct can be categorised in two forms: cases in which most details are known to us because a camera happened to be recording, or cases in which the details are uncertain to us because no camera happened to be recording. It is easy to decide which category is favourable. And so, if it is possible to ensure all cases land in the former category, we must attempt to do so.
Let me exemplify the precarious system of justice that is allowed when BWV is not present:
- The villainous misconduct of PC James Kiddie is only apparent to us because of this CCTV footage. Sarah Reed, much like George Floyd, would have found zero justice if not for this recording.
- An immense light would have been shone on the case of Mark Duggan if immediate footage was available. The police officer claims he was “absolutely 100%” certain Duggan was holding a gun, despite an eyewitness claiming the contrary.
The use of BWV provides two essential benefits regarding police misconduct. First, it proactively effects the behaviour of an officer due to the awareness of potentially being held to account, and second BWV also provides a reactive function where cases of misconduct can be reviewed and evidenced.
What needs to be done
The use of BWV across the UK in 2020 has advanced since its initial introduction. However, it can be improved two fold. Every active officer should be equipped with continuously recording BWV. This will comprehensively prevent, deter and evidence police brutality, misconduct and discrimination.
A fundamental limitation of BWV in the UK is that not every active officer is equipped with BWV. All 34 police forces use BWV however to drastically varying degrees. The Metropolitan Police claim all officers who have regular engagement with the public are issued cameras. However, North Yorkshire Police only have 38 cameras across its entire force. This means that some areas of the UK allow the possibility of misconduct to occur without any recording. It is obvious that certain areas have certain needs, but the need for accountable policing is universal.
Another key limitation to the UK’s current BWV is that they do not continuously record. Instead, police officers will, at their own individual discretion, capture specific incidents. This has led to concerns that police officers may deliberately or accidentally fail to record an incident of misconduct. Even if this possibility is unlikely, ensuring all possible cases are recorded is necessary. The most obvious argument against this reform is concerns over privacy. This guidance, published by the Home Office, states that those being recorded must be verbally notified, non-evidential footage must be deleted after 31 days and access to such footage is limited to only those involved. It seems that this infringement on privacy is minute, especially in relation to the colossal infringement of rights victims of police brutality face. A further criticism of this reform is a technical one – continuous recording would certainly be a strain. However, streaming and solid-state drive technology is readily available in 2020, and thus, so is continuously recording BWV.
A police perspective would offer an interesting criticism. The use of BWV will force active officers to enforce all law constantly, including the most tedious and insignificant ones. This poses the problem of wasting an immense amount of police time. However, one would expect all laws to be enforced, and if the enforcement of some is impossible or impractical, perhaps they should not be laws at all. Continuous BWV will hold the feet of UK laws to the fire, testing their necessity thoroughly. Furthermore, continuous BWV will ensure even and fair enforcement of law, as it would remove an officer’s individual discretion. Let’s say two people are caught with the exact same of cannabis, yet one person is arrested and the other is warned. This is clearly unfair. These proposals may make the work of the police difficult initially, but would eventually lead to the much needed bonfire of bad law.
The implementation of these proposals would deter police misconduct, and in the event it fails to do so, it will at least provide evidence and clarity.
The benefits of BWV go far beyond bringing clarity to cases of misconduct
The deterrence and evidencing of police misconduct is by itself, sufficient reason for advancing the use of BWV. But BWV holds further merit.
Firstly, the use of BWV improves the efficiency and quality of evidence. Video evidence is more precise, information-rich and objective than memory or written notes.
- Evidence can continue to be taken while an officer may be busy dealing with a particular incident.
- BWV will capture more evidence in incidents that are dense with information .
- BWV captures the raw emotion that exists during an incident.
- Video footage removes the human error of memory and note-taking.
This results in more accurate, cost-effective, and time efficient court decisions, benefiting justice overall. A Metropolitan Police publication further details the benefits BWV has on evidence-taking.
Secondly, BWV will also protect the police themselves. BWV can work both ways, as any abuse or assault on a police officer is deterred and evidenced with the overt use of BWV. Furthermore, the use of BWV will prevent wrongful allegations of oppressive behaviour against officers.
Thirdly, a crucial benefit of BWV entails improved public confidence with the police. It seems the police have never been less trusted, and the rightful movement against police brutality deserves to be satisfied.
Equipping every active officer with continuously recording BWV will greatly serve the justice system and themselves.
Cases of brutality and misconduct should no longer have the potential to go unseen. The current state of the UK’s BWV is commendable, but it should now more than ever, be reformed. Equipping every active officer with BWV capturing every moment will deter police violence, abuse and racial discrimination. And at the very least, bring such officers to justice.