Body-Worn Cameras: A Litmus Test for the Democratic Habitus of Policing

Body-Worn Cameras: A Litmus Test for the Democratic Habitus of Policing

Baris Cayli

Jordan Edwards, a 15-year-old African-American, was fatally shot by police officer, Roy Oliver, in Balch Springs, Texas on 29 April, 2017. The officer’s initial statement was found not consistent with the video that recorded the event. Roy Oliver was found guilty of murder thanks to the camera he wore on the day. Foucault, rightly, criticised the rise of control by the state through technology and complex systems to repress the dissent and consolidate its power. Yet one still wonders what Foucault would think about the role of body-worn-cameras (BWC hereafter) after reading the dramatic story of Jordan Edwards. However, the number of good news-stories in which justice is done is fewer than the number of cases of injustice. The voice of victims is unheard many times. Technology, in such cases, may play a greater role by widening and deepening the space of public deliberation.

Closed-circuit television (CCTV), in-car video cameras and recently mobile hand-held devices have shaped the practices and methods of policing with the advancement of technology. However, one of the most controversial contributions of technology to police practice has been the introduction of body-worn cameras (BWCs). The NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) reviewed the police misconduct in the last five years and they concluded that police misconduct is addressed better when there is footage and recording than in those without such sources are available. On the other hand, there are also negative views about the functionality and financial cost of BWCs as it was noted by Police Scotland.

I and my colleagues, Charlotte Hargreaves and Philip Hodgson, conducted an extensive survey between September 2015 and December 2015 with a random sample of 162 police officers who work in eight police stations in the East Midlands area of England. Before starting our research, we endeavoured to depict the role of authority in the habitus of policing as a regulative force. The perceptions of police about the BWCs would reveal the risks in the attainment of democratic, transparent, and accountable policing. This was the reason that we were tempted to ask whether BWCs would be a litmus test for police force to create and consolidate the democratic habitus of policing.

At the end of our research, we found that there are positive, negative, and evidence-focused perceptions about the BWCS. The positive perceptions about BWCs may increase public deliberation. The negative perceptions give priority to the concern of being policed by the BWC that is actually another factor increasing the accountability of police. Finally, evidence focussed collection leads to a diversity of information, and providing multiple sources of information to the public increases transparency. Therefore, the three types of perception – positive perceptions, negative perceptions and evidence-focussed perceptions – shape the democratic habitus of policing by increasing public deliberation, making the police accountable and providing plural and objective information to the public to attain transparency in policing.

Our research affirms that the respondents perceive BWCs as important instrument to reduce the number of complaints against the police. On the other hand, our findings delineate another important and overlooked issue about the role of BWCs in already marginalised communities such as Black, minority and ethnic (BME) groups who are frequently discriminated. In such a social environment, where tension determines the circumstances, building trust between citizens and the police is more challenging. Hence, the BWC is not perceived positively when the issue is the relationship between the police and BME groups. Yet we found that these negative perceptions actually democratise the habitus of policing and they may increase trust towards police among BME groups.

Would some events have been prevented if the BWCs were used properly with the aim of delivering justice? It is suffice to remember the riots in London that started on August 6, 2011, two days after the police had shot and killed Mark Duggan, a 29-year old black man who was a resident of Tottenham in North London. The circumstances around the shooting were contested with the Metropolitan Police, claiming that Duggan had acquired a handgun, which he was planning to use in a criminal act. Nevertheless, friends and families of Duggan were not convinced by these accounts. In addition, the changing narrative and inconsistency in the Metropolitan Police’s account over the death of Duggan defied the reliability of the police’s accounts. These contested tactics and manoeuvres of the state forces frustrated local public that was already concerned about the death of Mark Duggan. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (a non-departmental public body that investigates police conduct in the UK) subsequently investigated the case of Duggan’s killing (IPCC, Metropolitan Police Service 2012), and a public inquest returned a verdict that it was a lawful killing. Yet such an outcome was not sufficient to convince protesters who had contrary views about the legitimacy of this killing. Therefore, two days after the killing of Mark Duggan, the dissidents did not remain silent and asserted concern regarding the prevalence of police misconduct. The unrest grew exponentially with the motto uttering that ‘there can be no peace without justice’ and the same slogan was chanted in the fifth anniversary of this tragic event. If the police had used BWC and the Metropolitan Police kept the police officer responsible for the misconduct, there would be a good reason that the London riots would not be expanded so fast and in a dramatic way.

The consolidation of the democratic habitus of policing depends on other determining motives for using BWCs not only as an additional instrument of social control, but as an additional instrument of public justice through which we can increase public deliberation, keep the police force accountable and make multiple sources of information available to the public. This is the crucial method to rebuild the broken bridges of trust between the citizens and the police. BWCs can be a litmus test for the police who really want to democratise its practices. Yet such a test depends on the control of BWCs, its regulations, and the intention to use it effectively in the service of citizens and justice.


Baris Cayli is Senior Research Fellow in Criminology at the University of Derby.

Image credit: Loavesofbread at Wikimedia