Are body-worn cameras the future of policing?

How technology has changed policing in the West Midlands

On yesterday's Newstalk Breakfast, we took a look at the 'Modernisation and Renewal Strategy', which was published by An Garda Siochána in last June. This is a document that outlines a five-year plan for the force.

The report has a number of references to the police force in the UK having embraced technology, so I opted to travel to meet members of the West Midlands Police to see how they do things there. 

Once in Birmingham, I met with Alex Murray, Assistant Chief Constable for Crime in West Midlands Police. We met at Lloyd House, the WMP headquarters.

Upon hearing how Garda Commissioner Noirín O'Sullivan has said that the Gardai are "20 years behind where it should be, particularly in terms of IT," last year, Murray responded:

"I can't comment on the IT capability of An Garda Siochána specifically. What I would suggest, however, is that no IT strategy lasts more than three years.

"We know from Moore's Law that chip processing power doubles in speed and halves in cost every 18 months. We know the pace of change is so huge that if there was a perception held by the Irish police that they were 20 years behind, that is a great opportunity.

"What you don't have is a load of legacy equipment. You don't have lots of nearly redundant stuff. You don't have ageing or outdated policies. You could probably leapfrog and think 'where do we need to be in five years time?'"


Our conversation instantly turned to the technological advancements of the West Midlands Police. Murray pulled a phone from his pocket and explained how devices such as these have changed how frontline officers work.

"Our frontline officers have mobile devices that are encrypted. They can do many things on their mobile devices that they previously couldn't. What happens normally is you're dispatched to a job over the radio. You go to that job and you a have a load of paperwork that you need to do when you return to the police station. Now, that doesn't need to happen."

Murray explains how the new method works and it's many benefits. 

"You can be dispatched to the log, there's no need for a description over the radio. An alert can be sent to the phone then straight after attending to the job, you can update the log on the device. There's no need to return to the station. You can then move onto the next job."

I managed to see this system in action and it looks similar enough to Uber. This frees up radio signals, reduces paperwork and time spent at the station. It's a new enough addition to the workings of WMP, but is being worked into their way of routine already. 

Body-worn cameras

Whilst on the subject of frontline technology, Murray explains how WMP has rolled out body-worn cameras to response officers. 

"We've seen a huge reduction in complaints against police officers when they're wearing body-worn video. This was a quantitative study, so we don't really know why. There is probably truth in the middle somewhere that citizens see the body-worn video and moderate their behaviour. There's a bit around spurious complaints not being made because people know it was caught on camera and there's a bit around officers thinking 'what I'm doing is being recorded'."

The system used by WMP is cloud based. This means each officer has their own camera and it uploads automatically to the cloud. Officers can record on the system what may be of evidential importance and it can then be used in evidence. 

At present, the use of the body-worn video cameras are at the discretion of the individual officers.  

"Officers know when not to use it. If you're dealing with a particularly sensitive issue, a domestic abuse case, or someone who is vulnerable, you don't want to record that and they trust you.

"The officer decides when to press the button to hit record. The nice thing about it is that when you press the button, it records from the thirty seconds prior to you pressing the button. So if someone comes up and smacks you in the face, if you press the button, it will have captured the 30 seconds prior to that." 

Three Ts

Stepping back from the frontline, Assistant Chief Constable Murray explains how the methods of policing have changed.

"What frontline officers do when they're not responding to jobs can be defined, assisted and enhanced with technology. Robert Peel, our founder, says we should be assessed - as far as our effectiveness is concerned - on the prevention of crime, not just its detection. Where do you drive to, what offenders door do you knock on, what victim do you offer some reassurance to?"

Professor Lawrence Sherman from Cambridge University has an analogy, which Murray says is effective. 

"Sherman talks about old policing versus new policing. He says there are three Rs of old policing. These are: respond, reactive investigations and routine patrol. That's what police officers used to do but that's not an effective way to prevent crime. We need to move to the three Ts. Firstly, you target your resources. You test what's effective and then track progress."

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