It is debatable to what extent body-worn cameras, or bodycams, improve police-community relations and reduce instances of use of force by officers. However, there seems to be little doubt that, when used as they should, such devices can contribute in no small way to transparency and to making the police seek continuous improvement. Public trust in the force can only benefit as a result.
So the decision that the Malta police force should start using bodycams is commendable.
Bodycams used by officers carrying firearms or taser guns will be activated automatically once the weapon is drawn. Officers have been ordered to switch on the camera when interacting with a member of the public. When this happens, bodycams within a range of 30 metres will be activated automatically.
According to the information provided so far, the cameras can stream footage live to a control room and a recording will be retained for about three months unless an investigating officer decides otherwise.
However, it is not clear whether streaming footage live to the police headquarters happens as a matter of course or when an officer deems it necessary. Neither has it been explained whether bodycams can be switched on remotely from a control room.
It also emerges that, in “sensitive crimes”, officers can be asked by victims to switch off the gadget. Again, it is unclear what constitutes “sensitive crimes” because it is very likely that all crimes are considered sensitive, certainly by the victims and next of kin.
Neither is it clear what happens if the officer refuses to comply with such a request for their own reasons, such as deciding the footage could prove crucial for the investigation or as evidence in court.
Another reason why an officer might deem it necessary to record the goings-on, even in a “sensitive crime”, is if there is any suspicion they might be accused of excessive use of force or being manhandled at some point, especially if the situation escalates.
It is not known if there are any rules ‘writ in stone’, whether in the form of directives or guidelines.
If there are, they should be published forthwith for the sake of both transparency and accountability. If not, no time should be wasted in drawing them up.
It is not known either whether any studies on best practice were conducted before the decision to introduce police bodycams was made.
One can certainly learn from the experiences of forces around the world.
This technology first started being used in law enforcement in the late 1990s. The UK police had experimented with bodycams early in the last decade and the idea then picked up in the US with a robust push for such cameras starting about six years ago after several high-profile police shootings.
Notwithstanding the passage of time and the updating of rules and guidelines, there are still divergent views about the practice. Several studies conducted over the years lead to different conclusions as to the pros and cons of using body-worn cameras and whether they do serve the purpose they are meant to.
It is therefore imperative that the way forward is carefully charted, if need be by a working group that would include police officers, IT specialists and human rights experts, who could also represent society’s interests.
Its remit should be to lay down a set of policies and guidelines to ensure that the bodycams serve the interests of both the force and the public. That would best be guaranteed through accountability and transparency, in turn boosting trust in the police.
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