Lessons for Police Scotland on body-worn cameras

Written by Alan Robertson on 15 October 2014

Today’s College of Policing annual conference in Coventry will no doubt grab headlines for the Home Secretary’s announcement that limits could be imposed on the period of time people can be put on police bail in England and Wales. However, there is another development that is likely to be of equal interest to those working in policing north of the border.

Results of the first trial anywhere of body-worn cameras for incidents of domestic abuse have been published, revealing that the equipment could increase the amount of people charged. The trial, which was carried out over a four-month period earlier this year, saw Essex Police officers attend almost 3,000 domestic abuse incidents where at least one officer was wearing a body-worn camera. 
 
Now, the evidence shows that 81 per cent of detections where a camera was worn resulted in a criminal charge compared to 72 per cent where it wasn’t. In effect, then, the “presence of a camera increases the probability of an individual being charged”, notes today’s report on the pilot. This was despite inconsistent usage – only one in six officers surveyed during the trial reported using the camera for all domestic abuse incidents as was intended.

Officer experience of the technology is equally significant. Half of officers interviewed pointed to an increased confidence in getting convictions with the cameras given the evidential opportunities they present. “The evidence, interviewed officers reported, was especially useful if it was a recording of the initial account, as it would often capture emotion and any injuries – more accurately reflecting the impact of the incident,” adds the report. “An added benefit of the cameras was that often victims reportedly gave a great deal of information about the incident, or appeared when the officers arrived at the scene with visible injuries or clearly emotional, that they felt provided useful evidence at a later stage, particularly for evidence led prosecutions.” This, in turn, would allow prosecutions to move forward in which the victim’s support may not be required in court. 
 
Officers were made more mindful of their behaviour, interviews suggested, with a feeling that they would have to “justify action or rather inaction to anyone looking at the footage”. Practical implications arose, however: failure to record, recording at the wrong angle, difficulties switching it on and off, and not working in poor lighting.  
 
“Findings from this trial show that body worn video could improve criminal justice outcomes for cases of domestic abuse,” notes the report. “This study suggests that there is value in forces exploring other applications of body worn video, to other offence types, for criminal justice outcomes. However it is important that forces consider the context of implementation; and the possible ‘return on investment’ before committing to this sort of intervention. 
 
“Return on investment is important, and the cost of body worn video and the training – which required officers to be abstracted from ordinary duties for a day – should be weighed up against the potential benefits. Many of the benefits may also be extra costs, as an increase in the proportion of charges may mean more attendance of officers at court and more back office staff preparing case files.” 
 
Why then is this of significance for Scotland? Well, in August, the Scottish Government published its digital strategy for justice, which confirmed that Police Scotland has commissioned a full business case to “determine the precise policy, practical and fiscal requirements” of body-worn video cameras.

It’s no secret that Sir Stephen House is keen on the technology. This time last year the chief constable told Holyrood he wanted to see every officer north of the border issued with such a device. Grampian Police, one of the eight constabularies that merged into the single force, decided to issue officers throughout Aberdeenshire with a body-worn video camera the year before following a successful pilot. The force said more than 90 per cent of cases pursued using evidence gathered via the technique resulted in early guilty pleas. A number of specialist units have access to the technology, though the intention is to move towards national rollout subject to the aforementioned business case.

“This work does highlight for forces considering implementing or evaluating BWV [body-worn video], two main learning points, the first that the design and usability of the cameras is key in their uptake,” adds today’s report. “Second, a method of ensuring compliance to force policy may be required. Additionally, it would be useful for any process to have a way of tracking the use of the cameras – when they are switched on and used, particularly the incidents they are used for, to better track the impact. 
 
“Importantly, this study also demonstrates that it is possible for the police service to evaluate the impact of new technology on the ground. Given the current financial challenges faced by policing in the UK and around the world, it is increasingly important that new technology interventions police services invest in are tested for their efficacy.”

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