Meng Foon: Police body cameras will expose any racism

Meng Foon: Police body cameras will expose any racism

June 2, 2021

A recent initiative launched by police to help address issues around fair and equitable treatment of all is an admirable move.

The University of Waikato collaboration, "Understanding Policing Delivery", will look into the existence of unconscious bias within police ranks. It strikes me there is an option that could help.

The Chauvin trial in the US placed the use of body cameras in the spotlight again, and I believe the wearing of such devices by police could be an essential element towards eliminating unconscious bias or racism, perceived or otherwise, in Aotearoa.

The Human Rights Act protects people here from discrimination that occurs when a person is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances.

Police have conceded that systemic racism exists in the force. Commissioner Andrew Coster has acknowledged "all humans have unconscious bias" and the police are no exception.

It has also been stated there are three risks in policing when it comes to bias of any kind, including racial profiling: who is stopped or spoken to; how force is used; and how prosecutions are sought.

Body cameras could be an integral tool in dealing with these risk areas.

An independent panel has already been established to look at how police could use technology, with the idea that emerging tools could play an important part if prefaced by consideration and research.

Urgency is needed and should include public discussion.

Body cameras could offer context to any problematic interaction and in this day of social media and cellphone footage, context is everything.

Former policeman, MP and lawyer Chester Borrows has previously backed calls for body cameras, prompted by legal cases involving officers. Body camera footage could be used as evidence in such matters.

The Police Association has supported the call with President Chris Cahill saying there was a high chance police would be filmed by bystanders anyway. He said police have "nothing to hide".

There are a variety of protocols involved in the use of police body cameras in Australia and the US, ranging from being switched on "when police would normally use their notebook to record information" to "any public interactions" to "prior to use of force".

There are also regulations and guidelines surrounding the storage and access of recordings.

In 2017 the Foundation for Criminal Justice in the US issued a report on procedures for the operation of police body cameras, pointing out such parameters were only looked at after cameras were introduced.

This can't happen here – particularly with the shadow of allegations of improper use of police photography, the collection of youth images and fears that facial recognition technology could be used.

I would be against any technology that could lead to greater instances of racial profiling and would call for storage and access of footage to be monitored by an independent agency to address complications around privacy. The Privacy Commissioner would also expect checks and balances on the "over-collection", "retention" and "reuse" of such information.

The American Civil Liberties Union shared the same concerns and pushed for the use of body cameras with the condition that input from the community was sought.

All these strands need to be examined with resourcing and training also prioritised.

Whatever point Aotearoa would sit on the spectrum of body camera use is up to the respective authorities, including the Human Rights Commission, but it does seem to me that a record of interaction could either expose misconduct or quash false allegations.

A recent University of Chicago paper showed among US departments surveyed that body camera use saw complaints against police drop by 17 per cent and the use of force by officers fall by nearly 10 per cent.

A nuanced approach is necessary, but the use of body cameras could be a part of a broader move towards documenting and addressing racial bias, while hopefully increasing the safety of both police and the public.

Body cameras are already used by parking, corrections, hospital, and conservation staff with evidence of a decrease in the amount of abuse directed at personnel.

I acknowledge policing can be a complex job involving challenging situations and I am also concerned about the presence of unconscious racial bias, or racist systems and processes that have a discriminatory effect on ethnic communities.

This is why I believe the introduction of body cameras could be a beneficial move and needs more discussion.