Chris Marshall: Cameras – crack cocaine or force multiplier for police?

A body-worn camera, as used by the Metropolitan Police.
A body-worn camera, as used by the Metropolitan Police.
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When Nicholas Wood died in Grampian Police custody in 2011, the Fatal Accident Inquiry into his death was able to draw on evidence from a novel source.

In reaching his verdict that the 34-year-old had succumbed to the effects of chronic alcohol and drug abuse, Sheriff Graeme Napier watched footage captured on a body camera worn by one of the arresting officers.

According to the sheriff, the video showed PCs Eoin Maxwell and Jayne Forman acting “courteously and with consideration”, even allowing Mr Wood to be handcuffed from the front due to a sore shoulder.

Had the arrest happened elsewhere in Scotland, it would not have been filmed using body-worn video (BWV).

Grampian Police became the first force in the country to introduce the cameras in 2012 following a successful 18-month trial.

The technology is currently used by around 330 officers in what is now Police Scotland’s north-east division. However that figure looks set to increase dramatically under plans being considered by the national force.

Last week The Scotsman revealed Police Scotland is carrying out a “scoping exercise” to examine whether BWV could be rolled out nationally.

The technology appears to offer a win-win for the police and public, improving both evidence gathering and accountability.

But despite widespread adoption in both the United States and elsewhere in the UK, concerns remain about its effectiveness.

While a 2011 study into the use of BWV in Aberdeen found evidence of earlier guilty pleas and a reduction in the number of assaults on police officers, researchers in Canada last year warned the technology was not a “magic bullet”, with little evidence to suggest it improves police accountability.

There are also question marks over the storage of the footage and implications for police officers who witness something they do not record on their camera.

Then there is the technology itself. An investigation by BBC Scotland found officers in the north-east had logged 300 issues with the cameras, with some calling the system “inoperative” and “unusable”.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Police Scotland, however, is likely to be cost.

The Metropolitan Police – a larger force than Police Scotland – is currently spending around £1m a year on the rollout of 22,000 cameras.

Sir Stephen House, Police Scotland’s previous chief constable, ruled out BWV, assuming his cash-strapped force would be unable to foot the bill.

There seems to have been a change in tack, however, with the recent publication of Police Scotland’s ten-year strategy, which focuses heavily on the use of cutting-edge technology.

In typically colourful language, the Scottish Police Federation – which represents the rank and file – has described body cameras as the “crack cocaine” of policing, a costly habit forces around the world will struggle to ween themselves off once they have begun using it.

Any decision about the widespread use of police body cameras is likely to be put out to public consultation.

Before that, however, Police Scotland has a decision to make about how important technology will be in fighting crime in the decade ahead and – perhaps more controversially – how it’s going to pay for it.