The police have been rolling out body worn video (BWV) for many years now. You will notice, if you look at 999 response officers on patrol, many of them have two devices hanging from the upper portion of their protective vests: one of them is usually their police radio, the other, slightly smaller device is usually one of several types of camera. This gives a fish-eye view, with audio, of what is in front of that officer at that time and offers considerable insight in to the incidents they police. I remember when I first joined, most police custody suites did not routinely have comprehensive CCTV throughout and that when this was first introduced there was an amount of disquiet about the surveillance and scrutiny officers would be subjected to both whilst attending to their duties and whilst in between. However, once rolled out, most custody sergeants – and I was one of them! – took the view that it merely assisted in showing some of the outrageous things people do to the police, the support staff (including healthcare staff) and to themselves whilst detained and that we were, in the main, working hard to ensure we handled people professionally. Recordings from police custody have been used to assist in convicting people of murder and been used to acquit officers of wrongdoing when accused of misconduct or assault, perhaps far more quickly than they otherwise would have been. Of course, a few managed to show the opposite, but it greatly assisted in holding the officers to account.
When I was posted as an intelligence & offender manager inspector in 2007, I was given the responsibility for trialing some BWV equipment that had been secured for the area. The devices weren’t especially reliable, there was all manner of problems from actually downloading the captured images to IT systems, issues around data storage as well as keeping clear audit trails for evidential purposes that would allow their use in court or complaints processes. In particular, it was especially difficult to present the material in a way that keep the audit trail of how ‘edited’ the footage had been. Some may say, “Why edit the footage at all?!” … well, an officer may have attended an incident and been there for half an hour, but only 90 seconds of it recorded anything of evidential value. Even allowing another 90 seconds either side of that segment, you’d need five or six minutes of footage, not the full thirty minutes, so should the CPS and Courts just be given unedited footage and told to work it out for themselves? That would cost a lot of time. Officers also occasionally use the toilet during their working hours and none of wants to see that!
The basics of this are that devices record when the officer turns them on and starts recording, the device will store the last X-minutes of footage before starting record over itself – ie, 30 minutes held on camera and when it starts to record minute 31, you lose minute 1 unless you’ve instructed the device to preserve it. Officers could press the button early on to preserve an extended period and if they don’t, you’ll lose minute one of the footage as soon as you’ve started recording minute 31, for example. Upon completion of their shift they download that content to a secure IT system and if they do wish to edit the footage to highlight the two five-minute clips of value, they can create the smaller, shorter files without losing the longer ones. On my iPhone – I’ve been on holiday in France, filming my son jumping in to a swimming pool and when I trimmed the clips to upload for his grandparents’ delight, Apple gave me the option of trimming the old clip and making it shorter, or creating a new shorter clip in addition to retaining the old one. The police software for BWV doesn’t give the option of trimming the original: it only creates a new file of the shorter version so that all can be subsequently seen by courts, Professional Standards Departments or the IPCC. You can see the College of Policing’s interim guidance on BWV, subsequently incorporated in to all guidance for the service – this still represents a decent summary of all the issues, should you want detail.
And inevitably, we’ve started to see BWV issues in the context of mental health incidents … and it’s causing discussion. The College’s guidance document doesn’t mention mental health and, of course, officers responding to 999 calls or other situations may well turn on their cameras en route to an incident without knowing what the incident is and, having dealt with it, may instruct the device to preserve that evidence of the interaction for a range of reasons. For spontaneous incidents, I think we all understand that some filming of vulnerable people is inevitable and indeed, some may think it helpful in terms of being able to see how officers handled things, should there be a complaint or dispute – it preserves the rights of people to ensure accountability.
But what happens in other, more sensitive and pre-planned situations? The three I’ve recently received questions about are –
One objective of BWV is to record the actions of officers when they are using police powers and especially when they are potentially coercing other people under those powers. Accordingly, force policies often stipulate that any entry to a building that is conducted under the terms of a court warrant, where entry is, by its very definition, opposed by the occupants, should be recorded. In one police force, I read a policy that made it absolutely clear: this was mandatory and not up for debate. The filming should not only extend to the entry by force, but also to the time spent on the premises as trespassers right through to point of leaving. Granted, the authors of the policy may well have been considering drugs raids, searches for firearms of stolen property and if they had missed out mental health act warrants in their considerations, they wouldn’t be the first or last police officers to do so.
That said, are Mental Health Act warrants any different from the perspective of what we’re asking BWV to capture? – did officers make reasonable attempts to enter without smashing the door off; did they use proportionate force in gaining entry; did they use proportionate and dignified methods to search the premises for the person sought and secure the premises? What discussion took place by the officers about their decision-making – for example about whether to remove the person to a health-based Place of Safety for assessment under the Act, or for the AMHP and DR(s) to undertake that assessment in the premises? In many respects, it’s little different: although some may argue there are different things at stake given the nature of the warrant, this pre-supposed that crime warrants are not especially sensitive, capable of intruding on third-parties who live at the same address, etc., etc..
It gives rise to an important question, doesn’t it?! … can an AMHP, the patient or anyone else (like NHS ward staff) demand that the camera be turned off?
No, they can’t.
Nothing prevents mental health trusts and their police forces sitting down to discuss BWV and agreeing to refine any joint operating protocols – indeed, there is a duty on the police (principle 7 in the College’s guidance document) to consult about the use of BWV. Accepting that officers retain the right to use the equipment notwithstanding views that it should not be deployed, they are required to justify their use of it, by outlining what they thought they’d be gaining, against that which they were risking. So we need to be talking to people if we’re asked about it and not just saying, “No – it’s my decision.” Of course it’s also worth remembering, any footage in any incident which is not required for a criminal investigation or prosecution will remain securely stored in a police data warehouse until data protection policies see it deleted – this stuff isn’t going to end up on YouTube without a specific reason for putting it there!
Body Worn Video is part of the new normal. It must be borne in mind that some of the most controversial incidents in all of policing’s history have been deaths in custody involving vulnerable people in mental health crisis. We can see all around us campaigns from families and friends demanding justice and accountability for the death of their loved one – something I sure we can all empathise with were it ever to happen to our loved ones. BWV will go some distance to ensuring that where officers have stuffed up, they are able to be held to account. That said, I’m perhaps bound to observe that where officers are dealing with the complexities and sensitivities I write about on this blog, they’re getting it right in difficult circumstances more often that not, and body-worn video is potentially crucial in showing the difficulties we face to those mechanisms that hold us to account.
Winner of the President’s Medal from
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award.