Body cameras are becoming significant for law enforcement

  • Rajiv Makhni, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: May 16, 2015 20:46 IST

It’s a brand new car. You’ve celebrated with two of your friends at a pub and are now heading home. The smell of new leather, the exhilaration of finally owning your dream car: it’s a heady combination.

Your friends urge you to floor it, and seeing an empty road, you do just that. The celebrations come to an abrupt end as your shiny new car is flagged down by two very serious looking policemen. get out of the car, deftly hiding a few currency notes in your hand and approach the two portly law officers while trying to practice an expression that doesn’t make you look as drunk as you feel. But, all hopes of paying your way out of this one are dashed as you see a small red light blinking slowly.

The camera on the senior officer’s chest is recording your drunken smile and silly excuses, and you become the star of a wonderful little movie. Just your luck. You’ve encountered body cam cops!

Game changer
Welcome to what may well be the most significant reform and quantum shift in law enforcement around the world. From Brazil to Ghana, Israel to Northern Ireland and USA, police officers are getting equipped with cameras that are worn on the body and are immediately activated as the officer interacts with public or takes part in any kind of encounter or situation.

The camera is very small and light (smaller than a pager). Some are worn on the chest while others can record at eye level. Most of them have a continuous recording buffer of 30 seconds (thus if an officer activates it after an event has started, the recording starts from 30 seconds before). Some of these cameras are auto activated, based on preset rules and almost all the footage recorded is put on to cloud servers for post-event analysis.

Success stories

From trials across many countries, a significant amount of feedback is already rolling in. Law officers wearing body cams resort to lesser violent ways of policing. There’s almost zero corruption as conversations are recorded. Civilians have been found to be more forthcoming and complaints against the police have dropped by unprecedented numbers.

Knights of the future: Body cams can record at eye level, and will substitute police officers soon. Countries like the USA have already taken to it in a big way.

Certain countries like the USA have taken to it in such a big way that President Obama has requested $75 million in federal funds to distribute 50,000 body cameras to police across the country because ‘accountability and transparency increases and officers and civilians both act in a more positive manner’.

Costs for the cameras are low, newer technology is making them tamper-proof and they’ve already been used in multiple cases. It’s a win-win for everyone. Well, almost! Tech super cops

Let’s first understand Part One of this fast-unraveling story. In the future, it’s technology that will have to play the role of being the saviour, especially in law enforcement. There can’t be more and more feet-on-street cops as both the population and crime levels increase exponentially. in the air, face analysis softwares, a network of CCTVs and body cams will play a far bigger role in making society safe. And from within these, body cams will be the easiest, fastest-developing option. Even though they have some flaws.

Optical illusions
The first is our old favourite: Privacy. There is absolutely no room for that with body cams. Irrespective of why you’re filmed, everything you said or joked about will be legally admissible proof. They can dig it up and use it six years later.

Also, privacy goes to the dogs as you may be filmed in the background, but its still video proof of your activities. That small piece of trash you threw away, crossed a road at the wrong spot, played hooky from school to see a movie, it’s all there now. Every single time you see a cop, you’ll have to learn to walk upright and smile because you’re on camera!

Then, there’s the problem of who gets access to this video. These body cams will be paid for by citizens’ money and thus, everyone should be able to get hold of a copy, to help them in an unsavoury situation. Fat chance of that happening! From the way things are panning out, this will be exclusively the domain of the police.

It would be a nightmare to entertain requests for hours and hours of footage that will keep pouring in daily. And therein lies the biggest problem: once these videos start getting recorded off the chests of cops all over, what do you do with the footage?

Any of it could be needed immediately or in the future, so erasing it would be self-defeatist. But storage and cloud space and data analysis of all this footage could make the practice extremely costly and impossible to sustain.

Body cams in India
Irrespective of such snags, the time of the body cams has come. And, in countries like India, where the police force is looked upon with dread and suspicion, it could be a game-changing paradigm shift.

So, the next time you’re flagged down in your speedy new car and a red light is blinking on the burly chest of the cop, make sure you ask, “Hanji sir, iss mein off button hain ke poora chalan pay karu?”

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV, and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3

From HT Brunch, May 17
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