The case for police officers to wear video cameras

Body worn video cameras present police with many advantages, opportunities and also a myriad of ethical dilemmas. Project Eye explores how video captured unofficially by the public, and officially by officers has the power to change policing.

Project Eye loves presentations at BCS - and elsewhere - that are case studies of project implementations. It’s great to hear about the problems of real projects.

OK, so the emphasis is always on successful projects. Sometimes you can hear the distinct sound of people blowing their own trumpets. Nobody is going to stand up and advertise to the world their contribution to failure.

In the case of a presentation on police body worn video (BWV) by Superintendent Ade Hutchinson of the Metropolitan Police to a joint meeting of the South London BCS branch and the BCS Project Management Specialist Group, the speaker had something about which to be proud.

The ongoing introduction of the use of video cameras attached to police uniforms to record police interactions with the public - including raids, stop-and-search, and arrests - has had the general benefit of increasing the visibility of what the police do. In turn this has helped to foster the public’s confidence in the police.

What often happens when there is a presentation about the introduction of new technology, is that someone says something along the lines: ‘It’s all very well, but there’s not much about project management’.

Well, the Superintendent’s talk was peppered with project management concerns, particularly as the project was not just about technology transfer, but about organisational and cultural change in a highly charged political environment.

The starting point was the realisation that, with the proliferation of smartphone technology, police encounters with the public were increasingly being recorded by by-standers.

In some cases this might expose police failings, but the people doing the recordings might not always have the best interests of justice, law and order at heart.

Recording by the police officers themselves could produce valuable insights into what happened during ‘incidents’, and importantly the wider context in which they occurred.

A crucial responsibility of those who manage technological change is to demonstrate that the application of a novel technology actually generates benefits. The obvious way of doing this is by conducting pilots - who could object to this in the age of agile?

The thing is we all like success, and most of us want to make things work. So often pilots are conducted by highly motivated teams of evangelists for a new technology. It’s therefore hardly surprising that these tend to be successful. However, when an innovation is rolled out to groups who like the way things are, then issues very often emerge.

The carefulness of the statistical evaluation of the impact of BWV on police behaviour was very impressive. For example, the behaviour of police teams using BWV was compared with control groups who were not. If you are really interested in this side of things, look at the link at the end of the post.

Among the findings are that public complaints dropped with the use of BWV, and that the incidence of stop-and-search, if anything, increased as police now felt they could produce evidence that there had been justification for their actions.

An inevitable issue with organisational change is that of ‘culture’. Law and order is by definition ‘directional’. Citizens (including the police) are directed to act in a particular way, for example, not to engage in burglary. If you don’t follow the direction, then you face sanctions.

When it comes to organisational change inside the police, there will be a large element of direction. Given that sometimes they will be dealing with, literally, matters of life and death, and that the concept of justice demands consistency of behaviour this is not such a bad thing.

It can, however, also raise huge ethical responsibilities. Project Eye suspects that this issue of the need for compulsion and the ethical issues this can raise is often skimmed over in broader discussions of business change in organisations in general.

Further information:

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    Mike Jackson wrote on 6th Jul 2016

    Inteestingly IEEE Spectrum has also published details of a study on Police body cameras: http://spectrum.ieee.org/consumer-electronics/portable-devices/do-police-body-cameras-really-work

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