What a week last week was for policing. The jury at the Mark Duggan Inquest concluded that his killing was lawful and then PC Keith Wallis pleaded guilty to misconduct in a public office over the #Plebgate saga.
The media attention zoned in on policing and questions have been asked about how both these cases, and others, will undermine the confidence the public have in us a service. To be fair you can’t get away from it. It’s a hot topic. It’s on TV, the topic of discussion on radio chat shows, in the papers, the internet and all over social media. The Duggan matter is causing a lot of controversy but the officer has been found by a jury to have acted lawfully. In response to the Plebgate matter there have been many comments by police and non police supporters that we shouldn’t judge all police officers over the actions of individual “bad apples.”
One of the biggest discussions about policing as a result is the use of body cams (BWV – body worn video) by police officers. This has been a current topic for a while but last weeks events have added to its momentum. I think the use of body cams is a great idea and would welcome it. It is also worth pointing out that some forces have been using this kit for quite a long time.
There is evidence from a US study that complaints against officers plummeted after the introduction of BWV.
I remember very early in my service being told by a more experienced colleague that CCTV was everywhere and I had to assume, no matter where I was, there was a camera recording my actions. This was years ago and CCTV coverage has increased enormously since then. This wasn’t a warning to me to ensure no cameras covered me before I misbehaved. This was a warning that if I did misbehave something would capture it and on my head be it. He concluded it by saying “you won’t go wrong if you act all the time as if a tv camera is behind you.”
The question then is does BWV make a difference to behaviour and increase transparency? If it does then it can only help in the police/public confidence issue. If the US trial is to be believed then yes it does. Complaints plummeted and officers have said they were more likely to go “by the book.” This can only be seen as a positive. Yet there is a danger if BWV is set to become, in the eyes of the public and media, the arbiter of truth and the panacea to all the ills in police trust debates. BWV is useful and helps to paint a picture of how events unfold but it isn’t solely conclusive. It sees only where the camera points. Yes, attached to an officer it shows his/her view but it doesn’t show everything. It doesn’t show peripheral vision or what happens behind. It is a valuable tool but needs to be used in conjunction with other evidence and not relied upon in isolation. I don’t anticipate this will happen but comment in the media and by hurting families suggests that this is what they expect the outcome to be. I have refused charge on many cases where even with CCTV the evidence against the suspect didn’t add up or something else off camera could not be disproved. The same principle has to apply to police officer BWV evidence.
I work in an environment where I am monitored on CCTV every single day including very sensitive audio recording. I don’t live my life in fear of it. I simply act in the best way I can, with integrity, and know that the CCTV will back me up. I have been to court with a very difficult drink drive case involving a Freeman on the Land. The CCTV footage from custody was played in full in court. The case was won easily. In contrast I recently had another drink drive case where the CPS did not rely on the CCTV at all. As a consequence my evidence in chief was littered with “the CCTV will show this to be correct”. The prosecutor said the CCTV was probably on the file but they tended not to rely on it. Clearly we have the option to utilise CCTV from custody to prove cases and rubbish complaints. Conversely, it is also there to substantiate complaints and protect detainees. It’s just not being used to full effect.
Defence solicitors if given proper access can, when appropriate, advise guilty pleas and save police and court time. Professional Standards departments can view CCTV and rubbish false complaints without the need for a lengthy investigation. Yet at present they still run a full investigation. As an example; a case a few years ago related to another team. A detained person claimed to have been approached in the cell overnight and touched inappropriately. The CCTV footage showed that nobody entered the cell at all. Despite the footage, the investigation rolled on for months and cost goodness knows how much only to conclude there was no case to answer.
This is different to an ongoing incident on the street though because custody is a controlled environment. Footage from the street needs to be considered carefully as there are many more dynamics to take into account. As an example, officer V53 had an honest belief that Duggan had a firearm. He didn’t see it thrown. If he didn’t see it thrown then the BWV may not have done either. If BWV captured the gun being thrown the officer may still not have seen it because he was focused on Duggan at one side of the car whilst the gun was thrown from the other. It may show Duggan with his hands in the air or reaching for something. It may have been a phone and it could have been a gun. It quickly becomes clear, I hope, that BWV will help but it is not independently conclusive.
The UK police force is 130k strong. I’m not keen on the bad apples phrase. Bad apples affect all the others even when removed from the fruit bowl. I prefer rogue officer or maybe just criminal. I think BWV may bring into line any officers who are tempted to cross the line. It may stop some people joining in the first place. Either way neither of them are welcome by those of us who simply get on and do our best every day. The new Code of Ethics has also been raised a lot recently. Officers will know what is expected of them. Will the code of ethics prevent cases such as PC Wallis? I don’t think so. The code of ethics is a rebadged version of the current codes of conduct. It’s simply expected behaviour and a small number of officers have always fell over with this. There is nothing to say they wont do the same with the new code. The code is just a set of rules to comply with. So is the Theft Act. Despite all the effort the Criminal Justice System and external partners put into stopping it, theft crimes continue. We try to remove those officers who act inappropriately as fast as we can but the nature of society means that there will always be a thief in a community and there will always be a bad cop in the force. We don’t tarnish all of society as thieves when a crime occurs and we shouldn’t tar all police when the odd few let the side down.
In conclusion, I welcome BWV and would gladly wear it. It has great benefits and will validate officer actions and protect the public at the same time. It just needs to be considered with care and not given too much weight in isolation.
Bring on BWV. Give it to all of us but we need to use what it shows wisely and not expect too much from it…… Lights, camera… ACTION!