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Should New Zealand Police wear body cameras?

Given overseas experience, the case for police body cameras seems incontestable.

A US police body camera. Photo/Getty Images
A US police body camera. Photo/Getty Images

Police shootings are bound to arouse disquiet – more so when witnesses challenge assertions that the police had no choice but to fire. One such situation occurred in Hamilton recently when police carrying out a drug raid fatally shot garage owner Nic Marshall, 36. Marshall’s partner contradicted the police’s claim that he pointed a firearm at officers and refused to put it down despite several warnings.

Who is the public to believe in such circumstances? Ultimately it will be over to the Independent Police Conduct Authority to determine who’s telling the truth, and history suggests the authority will find that the police action was justified. But in the meantime, suspicions can fester, potentially undermining public confidence in the police. The fatal shooting of Steven Wallace in Waitara 16 years ago generated acrimonious controversy and is still before the courts, where the dead man’s family have brought a civil case alleging that Wallace was deprived of the right to life. In that case, the officer who fired the fatal shot was acquitted by a jury after arguing that he acted in self-defence, but public doubt over the killing was never entirely eliminated.

It’s interesting to speculate on whether the outcome might have been different had the officers involved in the Waitara incident been equipped with video cameras that would have recorded events as they unfolded. Almost certainly, body-cam evidence would have helped resolve matters one way or the other, and perhaps avoided years of recrimination and litigation.

Technology has made the routine use of such cameras possible. Cumbersome early models, mounted on a headband and linked by a wire to a hard drive, have been superseded by palm-sized wireless devices that are worn on the chest. By the end of this year, most front-line police officers in Britain will have access to them. In New Zealand, some councils have acquired them for use by animal control officers and parking wardens, mainly for protection against assault. Being told they’re on camera can have a miraculously calming effect on aggressive dog owners and parking infringers.

In the United States, moves to adopt body cameras have been given added impetus by a series of apparently unprovoked police shootings, all involving African-American victims. The Los Angeles City Council recently voted to spend nearly US$60 million buying body cameras for all its police officers – a decision backed by the LA police commissioner as a means of building community trust – and both President Barack Obama and Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton have pressed for more funding to be made available for cameras nationwide.

In a disturbing Timaru case in 2011, an officer resigned after being found to have acted with excessive force when footage from a Taser-mounted camera contradicted his account of an incident during which a man was pepper-sprayed, then tasered.

Body cameras have other benefits besides acting as a deterrent to rogue cops. Overseas experience shows that when used by police attending domestic violence incidents, a camera discourages offenders and is useful in gathering evidence, particularly where assault victims are reluctant – or afraid – to press charges.

A less predictable consequence of body camera use overseas has been a decline in the number of malicious or unfounded complaints against police. A study by the London Metropolitan Police showed that when incidents were captured on camera, allegations against officers dropped by 33%.

Given overseas experience, the case for police body cameras seems incontestable. And although it was hardly startling that civil liberties lawyer Michael Bott called for their introduction following the recent Hamilton shooting, what’s more significant is that both the police hierarchy and the New Zealand Police Association are open to the idea.

That doesn’t mean there are no potential fish hooks. Cost is an obvious barrier, and there are issues to be resolved in terms of data storage, privacy and potential misuse of the information gathered. What’s perhaps most important is that officers should be allowed no excuses for not turning cameras on – unlike the two cops in Houston, Texas, who activated theirs only after they had shot Alva Braziel on July 9. But otherwise the potential benefits, for police and public alike, make the introduction of this technology a no-brainer.

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