Case for body-worn cameras compelling but data storage could be ‘crippling’

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC) are currently replicating their much-publicised Rialto body-worn video (BWV) experiment with more than 30 other forces across the world, including West Yorkshire Police and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the UK and forces in the US and Uruguay.

Feb 11, 2015
By Paul Jacques
Police-recorded hate crimes in England and Wales. PA Graphic. Source Home Office. Figure for 2019/20 not included due to missing data.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC) are currently replicating their much-publicised Rialto body-worn video (BWV) experiment with more than 30 other forces across the world, including West Yorkshire Police and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in the UK and forces in the US and Uruguay.

They aim to announce their findings at the IoC’s Conference for Evidence-Based Policing in July. Early indications match the success in California, showing that BWV does have a significant positive impact on interactions between police officers and civilians.

The IoC’s Dr Barak Ariel and Dr Alex Sutherland have just released the first full scientific results of their widely cited experiment on BWV – The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomised Controlled Trial – conducted alongside Rialto police chief Tony Farrar in 2012. Their initial report was published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology and is largely recognised as an authoritative study on the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers and how they impact on their interaction with the public.

Dr Sutherland said the experiment showed that evidence capture is just one output of BWV and the technology is perhaps most effective at actually preventing escalation during police-public interactions: whether that is abusive behaviour towards police or unnecessary use of force by police.

However, while BWV cameras appear to be highly cost-effective – analysis from Rialto showed that every dollar spent on the cameras saved about four dollars on complaints litigations – and the technology becomes ever cheaper, the researchers say the sheer levels of data storage required as the cameras are increasingly adopted has the potential to become crippling.

“The velocity and volume of data accumulating in police departments – even if only a fraction of recorded events turn into ‘downloadable’ recordings for evidentiary purposes – will exponentially grow over time,” said Dr Ariel. “User licences, storage space, security costs, maintenance and system upgrades can potentially translate into billions of dollars worldwide.”

Hampshire Constabulary, for example, is set to roll out a further 2,300 BWV cameras this year to officers across the county following the success of Operation Hyperion on the Isle of Wight in which every frontline officer was equipped with a device. This will bring the total number of BWV cameras it has in use to 2,800.

Hampshire Constabulary says the pilot scheme that has been running since 2013 found that the footage taken by officers helped cases progress through the courts quicker and helped resolve complaints against staff, while also protecting officers.

Hampshire police and crime commissioner Simon Hayes said: “The importance of technology is that it is enabling police officers to do their job properly, to make them efficient and effective, to show evidence to the courts about what has happened at incidents and to speed up the justice process.”

The information can also be shared with the Crown Prosecution Service, which Mr Hayes says will make for swifter justice.

Lord Justice Leveson said in his Review of Efficiency in Criminal Proceedings that presentation of evidence was “a key aspiration” and BWV cameras on police officers “will have a potentially huge impact on the trial process”. The report said digital evidence gathering is strongly encouraged and police body-mounted cameras are considered reliable and effective.

Dr Ariel said that historically, courtroom testimonies of response officers have carried tremendous weight, “but prevalence of video might lead to reluctance to prosecute when there is no evidence from BWV cameras to corroborate the testimony of an officer, or even a victim”.

“Clearly BWV has the potential to improve police legitimacy and enhance democracy, not least by calming situations on the front line of policing to prevent the pain and damage caused by unnecessary escalations of volatile situ

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