IMAGE: Ewing Police Department

The police, body cameras and gag laws

A study by Cambridge University shows that a US and UK-wide experiment that issued police officers with body-cams, or body-worn cameras, led to a dramatic drop in the number of complaints made against the police. As I have commented in previous posts, body cameras have two main positive effects: on the one hand, people feel that police officers, knowing they are being filmed, are unlikely to use unnecessary physical force, while on the other, officers themselves are protected from false accusations by members of the public, given that a recording of an encounter usually provides evidence of what took place there.

The success of body cameras shows that although the state has the monopoly on the use of violence to maintain public order, monitoring what the police do is a good idea. The use of body-cams by police began in Denmark in 2005, although the first test that generated a significant level of attention took place in the UK. Since then, they have been incorporated by police forces in countries like the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and the Netherlands: There is some argument as to whether the level of transparency and control they provide is designed to protect the public or the police, but in general, civil rights groups see them as having a very positive effect, providing an objective point of view that in a growing number of cases can be contrasted with other video evidence taken by members of the public, given that most of us now carry a camera in our pockets.

In most civilized countries, and under most circumstances, it is perfectly legal to record the police as they perform their duties, something that some police forces are reinforcing by issuing officers with body cameras. The trend contrasts sharply with the reality here in Spain, where legislation passed by the ruling Popular Party in 2015, which has been dubbed nationally and internationally as a gag law, and criticized by the EU and now reported to the European Court of Human Rights, prohibits not only the public, but even journalists, from filming the police, but gives absolute priority to the police’s version of events.

An editorial in The New York Times at the time said: “Spain’s new gag law disturbingly harkens back to the dark days of the Franco regime, and has no place in a democratic nation”, and urged the European Commission to overrule the new law, citing the UN rapporteur, while calling on Spain’s politicians to repeal it. In a later article, The New York Times cited the views of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, saying the law is a “contrary to the rights of peaceful assembly and threatens freedom of expression in Spain”.

Of course, given the nature of Spain’s gag law, there is no question of the country’s police forces using body cameras, in contrast to the prevailing international trend, backed by studies like the one mentioned above, that clearly prove their usefulness. On the contrary, Spanish police officers frequently hide or avoid to wear their badge numbers.

Police officers undergo professional training, but this doesn’t mean they do not make mistakes or act irrationally, as we all do. Both the police and public can benefit from better monitoring of the police’s actions. In the case of Spain’s government, the question is no longer whether technology can be proven to prevent abuses, but that that there exists not the slightest will to do so, reflecting a clear refusal to follow current trends, and thus no appreciation of what democracy means.

(En español, aquí)