Is body-worn video the panacea to all policing challenges?

The last decade has seen significant changes in the nature and scale of crimes. As a result, many UK police forces have started looking toward technology as a way to deliver effective services. Most recently body-worn video (BWV) has become part of many digital policing strategies and is increasingly being rolled out across the UK. While on one hand, the technology is being hailed as an effective evidence gathering tool, on the other its value is being called into question. 

In theory body-worn video should have a positive effect on the behavior of both civilians and police officers. The desired outcome is that by equipping officers with video cameras, members of the public will be less likely to engage in inappropriate or confrontational behavior. Equally, the cameras should also deter officers from responding unprofessionally or using excessive force when dealing with suspects.

Evaluating effectiveness

While there have been a number of studies aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of the technology, the results have often been mixed or contradictory. For instance authors of a recent study conducted in Washington DC, have suggested that although body-worn video ‘may have great utility in specific policing scenarios,’ forces should not expect department–wide improvements. The lukewarm conclusion of the research could be a result of geographical or cultural differences for this particular sample. Not all police forces worldwide will see immediate outcomes and it’s common for organizations with large bureaucracies to have a harder time adopting new technologies.

However for the integration of body-worn video to be truly successful there needs to be a willingness to embrace change, implementing the necessary (and new) related processes and policies, and looking at and including the bigger ‘digital evidence’ picture. It’s all very well and good kitting out officers with BWV cameras, but the data generated needs to be accessible, easy to access and most importantly of all, combined with other digital evidence sources and silos to become truly useful.  Otherwise forces will be at worst ‘unable’ or at best ‘slow’ to realize benefits such as enhanced evidence capture, accessibility and quicker court proceedings by the way of earlier guilty pleas and admissions.

Improving policing and deterring crime

It’s estimated that by the end of this year 60,000 body-worn video cameras will be deployed by police forces across England and Wales. While the use of the cameras will initially improve transparency in frontline policing, research published last year suggests that the introduction of BWV has led to a 93 percent drop in complaints made against UK police. There are other benefits to be realized, and by combining BWV with additional evidence, investigators can build a bigger picture of an incident – it’s here in the investigative timeline that the true value of body-worn video lies.

For instance, officers can pair body-worn video with other first-hand evidence such as 999 calls to present admissible accounts. Similarly, BWV can be used in conjunction with 999 recordings and CCTV images to demonstrate interactions between victims and their perpetrators – presenting body language and tone, etc. If you consider how incidents evolve, all sorts of digital evidence can come into play – body-worn camera video, surveillance video, cell phone video, in-car video, 999 calls and radio recordings. Any piece of digital evidence can be scrutinized when it’s looked at in isolation, however linking data can help to provide a complete picture to prosecutors.

Storing and accessing data

As more police forces deploy frontline devices like body-worn video, we’re sure to see an increase in the adoption of back-end technology managing the data. Once a suspect enters custody, the 24-hour clock starts ticking. When managed properly digital evidence can help officers quickly pull together the relevant pieces of evidence.

For incidents such as domestic violence BWV can be used to film the area where the assault took place, as well as the victim and demeanor of the accused. This is vital evidence which can be automatically uploaded from the scene – making the footage available faster than before to anyone who needs it. With the video automatically uploaded, officers can then use the digital evidence management system to instantly research any prior charges or similar occurrences, and bring back all associated digital evidence. With complete evidence in hand, CPS can reach a charging decision sooner, before the offender can influence the victim to retract. Having all available evidence also dramatically increases the likelihood of obtaining a guilty plea, which translates into significant time and cost savings.

On face value, body-worn video is not the panacea to all policing challenges. But the growing adoption of BVC certainly does present an opportunity for police forces to rethink how to best maximize their use BVC, along with all other available digital evidence sources, which have become increasingly integral to modern police investigations.

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