Police and Body Cameras—Action ! Cut!  What about Citizen’s Privacy? – By Yvonne Sam

  By Yvonne Sam

Recording police-public encounters are not without accompanying legal hazards.

December 6, 2019 should be listed as a watershed moment in the country’s police history—The day the Guyana Police Force began using body cameras.  In 2014, the then Minister of Home Affairs Clement Rohee announced during a press briefing that in an effort to effectively tackle the grim crime situation in Guyana,  the use of body worn cameras had become a necessity and  as such would be introduced in 2015.

His prediction failed to reach fruition, until now in a “better late than never” type scenario under the aegis of Assistant Commissioner Edgar Thomas. Police body cameras are currently in use around the world from Australia to Uruguay, representative of a shift in policing practices and influencing the way police officers are perceived by citizens.        

In the U. S calls for the use of body cameras became more widespread following the fatal shooting on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man.

President Barack Obama on December 1, 2014 pledged funding for a nationwide program to equip departments with body cameras.  Law enforcement agencies in 45 states and Washington later received funding from the Department of Justice’s Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, which spent over $58 million between 2015 and 2017. https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/justice-department-awards-over-23-million-funding-body-worn-camera-pilot-program-support-law .

By 2015, according to a national survey of Major Cities Chiefs and Major County Sheriffs in partnership with the U.S Department of Homeland Security, https://assets.bwbx.io/documents/users/iqjWHBFdfxIU/rvnT.EAJQwK4/v0, 95 percent of large police departments reported they were using body cameras or had committed to doing so in the near future. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/us/police-body-camera-study.htm . The conclusion of an 18 month study of more than 2,000 police officers in Washington found that officers equipped with cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as those who did not have them.

The city has one of the largest forces in the country, with some 2,600 officers now wearing cameras on their collars or shirts. According to Anita Ravishankar, a researcher with the Metropolitan Police Department, “We found essentially that we could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras.” “I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” said Chief of Police Peter Newsham. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/10/20/558832090/body-cam-study-shows-no-effect-on-police-use-of-force-or-citizen-complaints. It is plain to see that having police officers wear body cameras has had no discernible impact on citizen complaints or officers’ use of force, at least not in in the nation’s capital.

Additionally, equipping police departments with body cameras is extremely costly, as the Police Force has to budget not only for the cameras, but also for ancillary equipment – data storage facilities, staff to manage the video data etc. Nevertheless, the foregone information is not intended to portray the impression that body cameras are ineffective, but instead that the Guyana Police Force has hopefully given serious consideration to this new venture, and  has secured the cooperation of the general public whom the ranks have sworn to protect and serve.

It would be somewhat unwise to implement a body camera program aimed at bringing greater accountability and transparency of police actions, without being legally aware of accompanying ramifications as it pertains to potential to cut into the privacy of citizens.  Has the Guyanese populace been informed or sensitized regarding the body cameras being worn by members of the rank?  Have there been any special departmental policies adopted pertinent to filming and recording of victims/ witnesses and obtaining of consent or notification?  Is “selective recording” or record everything” in place, What conditions exist for release upon request of camera footage especially in high profile incidents, and other incidents?

Let us not be lulled for one moment into a false sense of complacency in believing that Guyana has been transformed into a modern day Shangri La with the advent of body cameras. There are limits to what the program can accomplish, especially given the existing state of affairs where the police-citizen relationship remains one of deep- seated anger and mistrust. Research has suggested that body cameras are only as effective as the departments in which they are implemented. The body cameras on their own cannot change that relationship, but a well-implemented program could serve as a starting point for the ranks to demonstrate efforts at transparency and a displayed willingness to be held accountable for their actions.

The onus now rests with the Police Force to ensure that wearers of body cameras comply with departmental policies regarding activation and use. If the wearing of body cameras fails to lessen the number of complaints of police misconduct, decrease use of force, and additionally do not change officers’ behavior, then what are we adopting cameras for?

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