Leiden Law Blog

Smile! You’re on Body Camera.

Smile! You’re on Body Camera.

Last week The Hague was the scene of several days of riots. The cause of the riots was an incident in which an arrestee died while in police custody. The police officers involved were accused of police brutality and while the ensuing protest started peacefully it turned into a riot overnight.

The disproportionate use of force by police officers is not usually a hot topic in the Netherlands. Dutch police officers are not known for being trigger happy or overly violent. In 2014, for instance, there were a total of 158 incidents where an officer used his or her firearm, of which 70 were a warning shot. Yet, incidents like these show that the issue of disproportionate police violence is not to be neglected and raises the question of how to deal with this issue.

A possible solution

One of the ways of dealing with the disproportionate use of force can be found in recent experiments with body cameras for police officers. The idea is to equip an officer with a camera to record interactions with citizens. In this way, every interaction will have supporting video evidence in case an incident occurs. Several districts and departments in the USA and the UK are already using them.

So what were the results and experiences? In most cases the level of both police use of force and citizen’s complaints went down. In some cases, the drop in the level was quite dramatic. The ‘poster child’ for this experiment, in Rialto, California, showed a drop of 59% in use of force and 87.5% in citizen’s complaints. Although not every experiment led to such a drastic drop, the results did demonstrate a similar trend. The explanation for this is pretty simple: officers do not use excess force because they know they are being watched and citizens do not file false complaints because they know there is video evidence pointing to the contrary. The implementation of body cameras also has economic benefits, as processing incidents and complaints costs a lot of time and money. Less cases to process means less money spent.

Time to rejoice?

Although this seems like a win-win situation, as always there are issues to consider. Some are very practical. What to do with all the video footage? Having every officer on the force record an entire shift requires some serious storage capacity, which of course costs a lot of money. Some have proposed that switching on the camera should therefore be at the discretion of the officer. He or she should decide if video is necessary. But this would not solve the issue of the misuse of force, as the officer could just turn off the camera before things go awry.

Taking away the option to turn off the camera could lead to privacy issues for both citizens as well as officers. Officers may have private conversations that will be recorded and bathroom breaks would be a bit awkward. For citizens, on the other hand, having the police enter your home during a domestic dispute would mean that the police is filming inside your home. Because the footage would be publicly available, it means everyone would be able to take a peek inside your house. Several civil liberty advocates have also pointed out that the cameras can be used as enhanced surveillance. Body cameras can become a powerful surveillance tool in combination with facial recognition software.

These are only a few examples of the issues surrounding body cameras and we have not even tackled the problems of making the footage available to the public, retention periods for the footage, public awareness of recording by police, acceptance by police officers and so on.

A step in the right direction

The current issues with body cameras are not surprising though. The technology is relatively new and still in an experimental phase. And although body cameras are not a perfect solution, I do think they are a step in the right direction. Police officers serve society and they should be held accountable for any action to the contrary. As right now the officer’s word is often taken as truth, it is hard to fight abuse of power. Video evidence can be a powerful tool to even out the odds when fighting injustice.

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