OPINION: Frontline police wearing video cameras are gathering evidence about possible crimes. But they are also recording evidence about their own behaviour.
That is why the idea of having police officers routinely wearing video cameras is so promising. The eye of the camera is on both sides in the encounter. Both sides are therefore accountable.
Justice Minister Judith Collins is enthusiastic about this new version of robocop, and with good reason. The record suggests the use of body-worn videos by police has real benefits.
In the city of Rialto, near Los Angeles, the introduction of the devices in 2012 reduced complaints against police by 90 per cent – and police violence by 50 per cent.
The footage discourages people from making idle or vexatious complaints about police misbehaviour.
But it also discourages police from acting badly. They know that everything they do is being filmed and stored.
"When you know you're being watched you behave a little better. That's just human nature," Rialto police chief Tony Farrar has said.
Ms Collins is especially keen on the use of the devices, which can be attached to the officer's hat, shoulder, lapel or even sunglasses, in domestic violence cases. And here once again there is some promising evidence.
Police in Rialto say the presence of the camera often lowers the temperature in the household. And it can also resolve the problem of the victim refusing to testify after the heat of the moment has passed.
The camera acts as a silent witness, capturing the injuries on the spot.
Police in Cornwall, where the cameras are routinely used, as they are in other parts of Britain, have found them useful in fighting anti-social behaviour. Young drunks who had no idea how they were behaving are brought up short when they see the video – and so are their parents. This often deters them from doing it again.
There are, however, issues that need to be faced and dealt with. The footage needs to be carefully controlled by an independent authority to prevent any chance of police tampering with it. And access to it should not be restricted to police. If there is a dispute about whether there has been tampering, the complainant must also have access.
The videos must be tightly controlled – "nobody wants to see them on YouTube" – as one policeman put it. And there should be strict controls over the cameras' use. How far can footage used in one case be used in another inquiry? These are issues that would have to be clarified.
In the end, though, the principle behind body-worn video is the same as that requiring the filming of police interviews. It is an independent record of what really happened, and this is a safeguard and an accountability mechanism for both sides: police and the public.
Some police worry that routine filming would mean courts treated unfilmed testimony by police with less respect. But perhaps that is as it should be.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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