As technology leaps ahead, we’re seeing multiple new ways of capturing both images and sound. In police work, this capability has manifested most recently in the introduction of body cams – small cameras fitted to police officers in order to capture crucial moments of policing activity. Such moments could include for example civilian interactions, suspected criminal activity or the observance of traffic violations.
NSW and the Northern Territory are the first jurisdictions to move ahead with body cam plans, with roll-outs expected to cost several million dollars. The idea of an at-the-scene recording certainly has some merit – but it is important to consider potential downsides. Will police always keep the cameras on? Is editing possible? And what privacy breaches might arise? We tackle the issues that defence lawyers might well face in the future as body cams hit the police beat.
Needing the whole story
Overseas experiences with police body cams demonstrate that officers certainly become more self-conscious when the camera is on. Some in the community might applaud this, pointing to the high likelihood of police behaviour improving through the use of body cams. Yet many such devices have the ability to be switched off at varying times, leaving significant question marks over the activities that might have occurred in the gaps of recording. Criminal lawyers will no doubt be curious to know – what was it about the unrecorded activity that led to the officer’s decision to press pause?
An edited version?
The ability to edit after the event is also something to consider when we think of body cam footage in the context of evidence. The sophistication of modern day digital editing suites leaves open the possibility that scenes within a recording could be seamlessly shifted, deleted or otherwise altered. And where discrepancies arise in court about the course of events, defence lawyers might be in the unenviable position of facing allegedly ‘clear’ video footage versus their client’s oral testimony.
The privacy problem
Another real issue around the use of body cams by police is the potential for privacy breaches related to both defendants and their family. Body cams are often touted as an excellent way to record the sights, sounds and aftermath of domestic violence scenes. Yet when we consider the potential presence of children, unconscious victims and/or neighbours – it is easy to see how the intrusion of cameras without consent could interfere with the peace and privacy of citizens. Disturbingly, police in the USA have posted their body cam footage online to supposedly assist with transparency. Yet in effect these precincts are uploading graphic shootings, private property interiors and savage assaults for all the world to see.
Creating candid cameras
It’s no secret that modern technology including police body cams can assist officers and the broader community in the pursuit of justice. However, such power should be carefully examined before these small wearable cameras are brought into the mainstream. Expert criminal lawyers will be able to help you determine if the use of a police body cam has a particular bearing on your case, and what issues might arise in terms of privacy and evidentiary value. We can only hope that body cams are used appropriately by officers at all points in time during shifts.