Kathy Sheridan: Jury is still out on body cameras

Worn by gardaí or citizens, surveillance devices raise issues for privacy and evidence

For well under €50, anyone can buy a small body camera with night vision to clip to a front pocket and record everyone in sight

For well under €50, anyone can buy a small body camera with night vision to clip to a front pocket and record everyone in sight

 

It’s nearly 20 years since security experts began to warn clients about the scary new phenomenon of the camera phone.

Following a global debut in Japan in 2002, the smartphone’s thrilling potential was already evident. A 15-year-old American boy who narrowly escaped a drive-by kidnapping managed to snap a photo of the assailant and his licence plate and post it to the internet, ultimately leading to an arrest.

The downside was already apparent too. You could try to protect your confidential information by issuing cease-and-desist letters or by threatening lawsuits, advised a security expert back then, but face it – nobody owns the internet and no one entity governs it.

The general assumption is that the privacy horse bolted 20 years ago and sure why would you bother?

Twenty years on, we are still trying to come to terms with it. While data protection and compliance have been drilled into companies, try asking your average citizen to explain the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and why it matters. The one-sided debate over voters’ information accrued in Sinn Féin’s national centralised database suggests a level of public indifference that should be worrying for those charged with public education.

It’s hardly surprising then that objections by the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to a Bill proposing body-worn cameras for gardaí mainly elicited a shrug of indifference or a bark of annoyance. The general assumption is that the privacy horse bolted 20 years ago and sure why would you bother?

For well under €50, anyone can buy a small body camera with night vision to clip to a front pocket and record everyone in sight. A walk down any street will be captured by dozens of street cameras that can tilt and zoom and require no one’s consent.

Drivers’ dashcam footage is routinely sought after a road accident. Cyclists happily upload their Go Pro videos of motorists’ behaviour. A bus will have several cameras trained on passengers. Security personnel of all kinds already wear body cameras. Gardaí use handheld cameras during public order situations and Garda stations and Garda cars have cameras, so why not just wear them?

In fact, body cameras are nothing new to An Garda Síochána. At a time when protesters’ favoured tactic was to crowd around water meter installers and gardaí, holding video phones in their faces, gardaí had their own body cameras issued as part of an operational order to manage such protests. This order obliged them to inform protesters they were being recorded.

The value of the ICCL and all who keep a beady eye on State over-reach is that they look beyond the obvious

When 40 complaints – the majority relating to incidents in north Dublin during the installation of water meters – flooded into the Garda Ombudsman about the policing of the protests, the ombudsman’s principal source of evidence became the Garda body camera footage and video evidence uploaded to social media websites by others.

Did the video evidence influence the outcome? It almost certainly influenced the duration of the investigation. More than one-third of the complainants did not co-operate or withdrew from it, leaving about 27 active cases. While one relating to assault was forwarded to the DPP and not pursued, the conduct of three gardaí in that case resulted in recommendations of disciplinary proceedings. For the rest, “there was no clear evidence of garda misconduct and, in some of them, it could be established that the actions of the gardaí concerned were proportionate”, according to the report.

The point is that body cameras are not a novel idea here and have been used in fairly high stakes evidence. Nothing to worry about there so? But the value of the ICCL and all who keep a beady eye on State over-reach is that they look beyond the obvious. The jury is still out on body cameras.

An extensive review carried out by the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington DC concluded that the presence of body-worn cameras had no detectable effect on police discretion, as measured by arrests for disorderly conduct. Then again, a 2017 randomised controlled trial in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found that officers wearing body cameras generated significantly fewer complaints and use-of-force reports than those without cameras. The group with cameras also made more arrests.

The Garda Representative Association cites the success of body cameras in gathering evidence in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence incidents

But the technology as always relies on honest handling at every stage. Body camera footage of the police raid in which Breonna Taylor was fatally shot reflected the chaos and confusion around the incident but, crucially, did not capture the shooting itself. That was because the seven officers sent to search for evidence of drugs or cash either weren’t wearing body cameras or didn’t activate them.

In the George Floyd case, the officer convicted of his murder somehow became separated from his body camera at an early stage. Other officers’ cameras captured the police aggression and nonchalance as an unresisting Floyd begged for his life, but it was a 17-year-old bystander, Darnella Frazier, who captured the shocking viral video of his death.

Ireland is not the US, of course. In the main we enjoy a system of policing by consent and a remarkable degree of sensitivity in times of trouble. The Garda Representative Association cites the success of body cameras in gathering evidence in the immediate aftermath of domestic violence incidents which can be used where victims subsequently feel unable to follow through on a complaint. They also believe that body cameras may be a deterrent against attackers and who would want to deny them that?

Then again, there is the ICCL’s position : that what we’re dealing with is a piece of technology that is essentially introducing surveillance into society but with no good evidence that it actually works.

Let’s see the evidence.

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