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Body cameras for police in T&T?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Protests have again erupted in several cities in the USA in response to what is perceived, by the Afro-American community, as targeted police brutality. As a consequence of this and past incidents, the call for police officers on patrol to wear body cameras has gathered momentum, including one for funding by President Obama.

The use of science, technology and innovation in policing is not new. But adoption of new and emerging technologies in law enforcement is set to grow. Evidence-gathering is fundamental to effective law and order practice.

The video and audio evidence available from cameras mounted on officers can certainly provide clear and unbiased evidence. It will eliminate or reduce significantly the subjective “one said/the other said” type of contradictory evidence that regularly emerges from encounters between police and people. 

The promise of increased accountability and improved evidence-gathering has led to pilot studies being commissioned in cities in the USA. In 2012, the town of Rialto in California, USA, carried out a pilot study. The results indicated that there was a 60 per cent reduction in the numbers of incidents involving the use of force by officers and an 88 per cent reduction in complaints by the citizenry. In Mesa, Arizona, similar results were observed. 

The New York Police Department has fast-tracked plans to test the use of body cameras on some 50 patrol officers for a three-month trial period. The intent is to evaluate and maybe extend the programme.

There are similar claims of police brutality and the shooting of unarmed people in T&T and hence a pilot programme should be implemented locally for patrols. It should also include officers from both the Defence Force and the Police Service on joint patrols. A carefully thought-out programme may help in mitigating the existing tension between officers and residents of crime “hot spots.” At a minimum, it would provide an unbiased third source of evidence. 

The recording and airing (through social and electronic media) of events and situations using mobile phones by onlookers is an already established practice. This, however, is ad hoc in nature and may not provide close-up video and adequate audio that can meet courtroom standards. Body-mounted cameras can provide such consistent and reliable evidence. 

In the worst-case scenario, it would lead to a less aggressive and a more professional approach by officers as they would be mindful of what they say and do to people with whom they are interacting, as the proceedings will be recorded. 

On the other side of the coin, people directly involved and those supportive of criminal and anti-social behaviour will not be able to falsely accuse officers or give distorted accounts of what happened without being challenged. This can only lead to better and more effective policing.

The implementation of such a programme, however, needs to be properly planned and implemented as it would require, in the first instance, a significant upgrading of the technological capabilities, resources and personnel, specifically the ICT systems and human resources, of the TTPS. 

The training of the officers themselves will need to be changed to satisfy the requirements for this technologically-enhanced mode of policing. The necessary legislative changes regarding privacy and evidence collection would also need to be made.

This venture would not be cheap, but when one considers the amount of money already spent on the effort to reduce crime, it is about time that more technology-based smart solutions are adopted to achieve the desired outcome. Emphasis on increasing the number of police personnel and vehicles will not bring the desired results. The emphasis must be on the increased use of science, technology and innovation in policing.


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