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Police shy on body-worn cameras in spite of evidence

NZ Security Magazine, Dec 2017/Jan 2018

New Zealand has not yet had its ‘Ferguson moment’New Zealand has not yet had its ‘Ferguson moment’


The international law enforcement community is embracing body-worn camera (BWC) technologies, but New Zealand Police is in no hurry. Ultimately, it comes down to a cost-benefit analysis in which the former appears to be outweighing the latter, writes Nicholas Dynon.


Calls for police in New Zealand to start using body-worn cameras reached a crescendo in July last year with the fatal shootings by police of 36-year-old Nick Marshall in Hamilton and – days later – 35-year old Shargin Stephens in Rotorua.

Mr Marshall was shot five times by AOS officers after he pointed a shotgun at police and chambered rounds while they executed a search warrant at a warehouse where he was operating a business in Hamilton on 12 July.

Two days later, in an unrelated incident, police used pepper spray and tasered Mr Stephens three times before shooting him on 14 July. On electronically monitored bail at the time, he had hours earlier cut off his monitoring bracelet and attacked a passing police car.

Aggressive and allegedly high on methamphetamine, he had wielded a machete and ignored police directions to drop the weapon.

In the aftermath of Mr Marshall’s death, his partner Kendyl Eadie, who had been on the scene, branded police “cold blooded killers”. She posted on her Facebook page that in contradiction to the police version of events, Mr Marshall had been neither armed nor threatening,

The two shootings led Lawyer Michael Bott to make repeated calls in the media for the introduction of BWCs, including in the August 2016 issue of NZSM. The technology, he said, could be used to record such incidents and avoid the need to rely solely upon officers’ notebooks and recollections.

“It appears to me that these cameras are a valuable tool in the sense that they protect police from false or malicious allegations of police violence,” he told NZSM, “but also they protect the public because it enables an independent decision maker to look at the potential video footage and decide in the instance of each particular case whether the actions of the officers were in fact appropriate.”

Details of the shooting were revealed on 21 June in an Independent Police Conduct Authority (IPCA) report, which found officers were justified in firing, despite Ms Eadie disputing the police version of events. “After considering all the available evidence and on the balance of probabilities,” stated the report, “the Authority prefers the officers’ version of events.”

Responding in the media to the IPCA report, Mr Marshall’s father stated that the police should introduce compulsory body-worn cameras for all armed and frontline officers.

A 6 July IPCA report also found police were justified in shooting Mr Stephens.

The shootings, however, were not the first time the potential for New Zealand police wearing BWCs had been raised. At the NZ Police Association's annual conference in October 2015, mobility manager Inspector Rob Cochrane had commented that the filming of arrests or altercations could provide prosecutors with the evidence they needed to convict whilst avoiding the complication of 'he said-she said' arguments arising in court.

“It's not an issue in New Zealand at the moment,” Police Association president Greg O'Connor said at that conference, “but it's going to be.”


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International take-up

An article in The Listener appearing two weeks after the July 2016 shootings, and noting high rates of police shootings in the US, commented that “given overseas experience, the case for police body cameras seems incontestable.”

Internationally, the take-up of BWCs by law enforcement had already gathered significant steam, driven by the need to restore public trust in police forces embattled by allegations of unnecessary use of force.

In December 2014, the Obama administration pledged USD 75 million in new federal funding specifically for the purchase of 50,000 BWCs for law enforcement officers across the US. This had come in the wake of national and international public outcry over the fatal police shooting by a white police officer of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in the town of Ferguson, Missouri.

Protests in Ferguson followed Michael Brown's death and a grand jury’s decision not to charge the officer involved with murder. A justice department investigation had also found widespread alleged racial bias in the police force.

According to a recent study, black males aged 15-34 are nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by law enforcement officers.

The Obama funding pledge not only highlighted the need for a solution to provide a definitive record of police activities, but also the solution itself: body-worn cameras.

But the reputational damage to police forces as a result of fatal shootings and the contested justifications for them has not been limited to the US.

In the UK, which boasts the world’s highest concentrations of CCTV and BWC, it was announced in August that head-mounted cameras, fitted to baseball caps and ballistic helmets, were being issued to all armed response units in Scotland Yard’s firearms command.

It is part of the largest rollout of body-worn cameras by any police force in the world, and a move seen as a bid to restore public confidence after a series of violent clashes following shootings. It came just weeks after it was announced the number of fatal police shootings in England and Wales had reached its highest level in more than a decade.


NZ in comparison

In England and Wales (population 60 million), the number of people who have died as a result of police shootings since 2012 is 15 – considerably lower than in the US (population 316 million) where the number so far in 2017 alone stands at 836.

So where does New Zealand (population 4.7 million) stand in fatal police shooting statistics. According to a May 2017 New Zealand Herald report, in the past five years 18 people have been shot by police. 10 have died.

In April 2017, North & South noted that over the past 10 years, New Zealand police fatally shot people at twice the rate of the Australian state of Victoria. “Compared with the English and German police forces, it stated, “New Zealand police kill at closer to 10 times the rate.”

One of the last Australian states or territories to make the move to BWC, the Victorian Government has this year committed funding for 7,700 body-worn video cameras for its police over the next three years. It’s also pushing legislative change through state parliament to enable the deployment.

In Victoria’s case, renewed calls for the use of BWCs came during a 2016 Royal Commission into Family Violence, which recommended that police trial the devices to collect statements and other evidence from family violence incidents.

The evidentiary effectiveness of BWCs in domestic violence cases seems to have been front of mind for then Justice Minister Judith Collins, who had good things to say about the cameras upon her return from a trip to London in February 2014.

According to the minister, UK police were getting more successful prosecutions of offenders “because the victim doesn't end up having to give any evidence because the camera, essentially, is giving the evidence, along with the police officer.”

Since then, there have been trials by NZ Police of officers using phones to record the statements of women reporting domestic violence immediately after an attack, but that appears to be as far as things have come.

In the meantime, the NZ Department of Corrections and a swathe of local government organisations have piloted and rolled-out BWCs for their frontline staff. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2016 has played a big role in driving councils to take up the technology for parking wardens and other compliance officers who had increasingly been subjected to assault.

Thus, despite the media surrounding recent police shootings in New Zealand and strong evidentiary arguments for the police use of BWCs – despite previous ministerial interest in them given NZ’s notorious domestic violence record – and despite local councils finding no major barriers to their adoption, there has been no sign that NZ Police is any closer to acquiring body-worn cameras.


A cost-benefit consideration

In a Radio NZ interview the day after the July 2016 Rotorua shooting, Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement (acting Commissioner at the time) commented that while Police are open to the use of BWC, introducing them was not a simple matter.

“The back end in terms of storage of the data and having access to it and maintaining the integrity of it - they are not set in stone and easy things to unpick and make sure that are in place before you embark down this path,” he said, further stating that a decision may be made not by the police, but by the government.

Data integrity, chain of evidence and privacy issues have already been navigated by the dozens of law enforcement agencies internationally that have adopted the technology. Although policy alignment has been uneven, New Zealand’s path has arguably been smoothed by the early adopters.

The big issue is cost. BWCs are expensive. It’s the reason why Canada’s largest police service – the RCMP – earlier this year decided to abandon plans to adopt BWCs. The technology requires long-term investment by police services that are often already cash-strapped.

Much of the expense is in ongoing data handling costs as opposed to the cameras themselves.

According to a 2017 study, the New South Wales Police Force produced 930 terabytes of recorded video per year with its 350 BWCs. The costs involved in storing and managing that data was estimated at AUD 6.5 million per year. The cameras themselves were bought for less than 10 percent of that amount.

Given that the widespread deployment of BWCs in the US and UK came only after government funding commitments in the wake of reputationally disastrous police shootings, perhaps the simple explanation for non-deployment locally is that New Zealand has not yet had its ‘Ferguson moment’.

On the contrary, NZ Police remains well within the public’s trust. So much so that it was a winner at the IPANZ Public Sector 2016 Excellence Awards, taking out the ‘building trust and confidence in government’ category. Commenting on the win, Judith Collins stated at the time that trust and confidence in the Force had increased “from 69 percent in 2007/8 to 78 percent in 2014/15.”

And this despite the same period delivering the highest concentration of fatal police shootings of citizens in New Zealand Police’s history.


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