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Policing the Police: Bodycams and public scrutiny

Body worn cameras, or bodycams, were only introduced to policing around 3-4 years ago but have since become a regular part of Police uniforms. Here, Lecturer in Criminology and Policing Sharda Murria examines how they have changed Police scrutiny. 

Policing the Police 1200x450 - Police body cam

Bodycams were introduced with the aim of providing greater transparency over police actions. After the USA saw a series of high profile deaths in custody, allegations of police brutality and the fallout of years of continued discriminatory stop and searches, bodycams were heralded as the answer to our lack of visibility over the police.

Body cameras would provide greater transparency over police encounters with citizens and, more importantly, would lead to greater accountability. Both officers and citizens would be deterred from bad behaviour as a result of the constant surveillance of the bodycam’s watchful eye, and any wrongdoing would most certainly be met by unpleasant consequences for officers and citizens alike. Perhaps most importantly of all, dwindling public trust would be regained.

It wasn’t long before police forces around the world were rushing to purchase bodycams in a public declaration of ‘we also have nothing to hide!’ Most, if not all, forces in England and Wales have equipped their frontline officers with bodycams.

But how do we, as members of the public, benefit from the professed visibility benefits of bodycams?  Who is actually watching the footage? Rules around the prohibition of releasing bodycam footage prior to a criminal trial, in fear of compromising the trial, has meant that the most controversial footage from events which command the most media attention are not always released and when they are, it’s often months later, if not longer. By this time, most members of the public have already made their minds up about the perceived fairness of police actions, usually with some assistance from viral smartphone videos on social media.

In most cases, the reality is that the majority of the public won’t get to see most bodycam footage. Every so often forces will release bodycam footage on social media, often for the purpose of demonstrating officer best practice or showing assaults on officers and how bodycams are vital in such cases. However, there is no regular public showcasing of bodycam footage. If bodycams were intended to increase public confidence in the police based on greater transparency and accountability, how can this be achieved if no one external is watching the police to hold them to account?

Most police forces now have formal community feedback mechanisms in place. One such example is stop and search scrutiny panels. Stop and search scrutiny panels consist of volunteer members of local communities who meet on a monthly basis with their local police force to provide the police with feedback on policing responses in their local area and an insight into how these responses may affect different communities in the area. They often include representatives from different faith groups, members of local businesses and other community organisations. More recently, police forces have begun allowing scrutiny panel members to view bodycam footage.

Bodycam footage allows scrutiny panel members a unique insight into police interactions with the public. The footage allows community members to provide feedback on aspects which would otherwise only be possible through accompanied patrols which can be difficult to organise, particularly on an ongoing basis.

Through bodycam footage, citizens are able to provide feedback on important elements of police interactions, such as how the officer spoke to members of the public, how fairly and respectfully they treated them, and so on. Discussions have advanced from ‘has the officer met their lawful requirements’, as evidenced through a tick-box form filling exercise, to ‘is this officer speaking to this young person is a respectful way which isn’t likely to damage their perception of the police’.

If panel members have any concerns about the footage, the officers at the panel will investigate further and feedback an explanation or resolution in the next meeting. Scrutiny panels afford the police an insight into how the use of their powers affect different groups in society, something which is crucial to secure public trust in the police across all communities.

Of course, scrutiny panels are not always perfectly representative in their demographics which can be prohibit scrutiny from all groups. This is particularly the case for youths and ethnic minority communities who will have important perspectives to share on being subject to police attention, but may be more reluctant to attend police meetings, often in police buildings.

However, for those that do attend, having visibility over positive examples of officer-citizen interactions can be reassuring and provide an encouraging message to relay back to their communities. Although we may not witness footage of our own interactions with officers, knowing that a member of your our local community, volunteering on a scrutiny panel, is policing police behaviour in stop and searches and use of force, helps provide greater confidence that our local police forces are being held to account.