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Victoria Police are expanding the use of body cameras despite concerns from community and legal groups about a lack of rules over their use and uncertainty about the accessibility of footage to support complaints about police conduct. By Denham Sadler.

More cameras on police coming

A Victoria Police officer fitted with an Axon body camera.
Credit: Victoria Police

The community legal sector is calling on the Victorian government to halt the large-scale rollout of police body cameras in the state due to “serious concerns” about how the scheme is being implemented.

In late August, the state government announced it would be deploying the small, battery-powered cameras – worn on a police officer’s uniform and capturing audio and video of their interactions with the public – to a further 59 police stations, following a trial in two stations in Ballarat and the Melbourne suburb of Epping earlier this year.

The first cameras will be rolled out this month to nine police stations in the Ballarat region, with further deployments in other areas before the end of the year. Under the plan, all police officers in Victoria will wear a camera by 2020.

In a letter sent to the government recently, the Federation of Community Legal Centres (FCLC) said the rollout of the cameras “lacks sufficient oversight and accountability” and does “nothing to assist accountability of police”.

“Until police have to turn cameras on at all times, and that people who make complaints against police misconduct have full access to the audio and footage, the body-worn cameras will do nothing to improve accountability and transparency,” the letter said.

These issues were first raised with the government at a public consultation earlier this year in the lead-up to the launch of the trial in mid-April. But FCLC director of strategy, policy and engagement Melanie Poole was left disappointed by the “very poorly run” consultation.

“We raised a lot of questions that went unanswered, and we weren’t given any documentation about the guidelines or rules or any information about how these body-worn cameras would actually be governed,” says Poole.

Troubled by what they perceived as a brush-off by the decision-makers, the FCLC and 26 other organisations signed an open letter in March to the police commissioner and Victorian attorney-general, outlining their worries with the scheme’s implementation.

The trial went ahead and was hailed a “success” by the police and government, with a report by Victoria Police including 10 recommendations, focusing on technical specifications and mounting options. Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Russell Barrett said feedback during the trial was “overwhelmingly positive” and the deployment of the cameras is expected to lead to increased guilty pleas, successful prosecutions and “improved community and police officer safety”.

But the FCLC is now calling on the state government to publicly release the report produced on this trial earlier, and for an independent assessment to be conducted before the wider deployment is launched.

“It’s pretty poor democratic accountability to engage a bunch of key community advocates and say we’ve got serious concerns, tell us they’ll be addressed, and then not share the evaluation,” Poole says. “The idea of community consultation is becoming increasingly farcical.”

A Victoria Police spokesperson said the evaluation was focused on testing the camera usage framework and the policy procedures, and that footage captured on the cameras during the trial was “instrumental in securing guilty pleas in at least four court cases”.

If the rollout does go ahead, the FCLC has called on the government to introduce “proper police accountability mechanisms”, including clear penalties for not turning the cameras on and ensuring that those looking to make a complaint against police are given full access to any footage that exists.

In the Victorian government’s view, police body-worn cameras will benefit both the police and the general public.

“[They] will help strengthen community safety, improve evidence gathering and increase accountability and better interaction between police and the community,” says Police Minister Lisa Neville. “They have already led to quicker results through the courts and we expect these benefits will continue as they’re deployed to more and more front-line police.”

But Jeremy King, leader of the police misconduct team at legal firm Robinson Gill, argues the current scheme ensures too much power remains with the police.

“The real heart of the issue is control,” he says. “Police completely control when [the camera] is turned on and when it is turned off. Police completely control who accesses it and when, and when it is retained and deleted. There’s one party with complete control over it.”

Poole says the rules underpinning the use of the cameras have not been set out in legislation and there are no clear guidelines available to the public.

“It’s particularly disappointing from the government,” she says. “They’ve got the power to legislate the safeguards but it seems like the police are getting to design it the way they want it to look, and any institution that’s handed that power will always design it in a way that expands their power.”

The Victoria Police website page regarding the cameras was updated in late October with some guidance on the use of the technology. Police officers have been instructed to turn on the cameras whenever they are exercising police powers, when collecting evidence, when the recording would provide “transparency to police interactions”, or if they feel there is a situation with a need to record.

“The overriding principle for activating a camera is to improve the safety of the community and the police, collect evidence and increase transparency,” Assistant Commissioner Barrett says.

If a camera is not turned on when it should have been, or if a recording is stopped too early, the police officer will be required to make a note outlining why this happened, and a failure to comply with these rules will be treated as a disciplinary matter. But Barrett says these incidents will be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis”, and no penalties have been set out in legislation.

Poole says this is a huge problem. “Not doing that can undermine the whole thing,” she says.

Another key concern is who will be able to access the footage and how they will be able to do so.

The footage recorded will be stored for 90 days and then deleted unless it has been marked as evidence. It will be classified as “protected information”, with only authorised officers able to access it. The Freedom of Information Act will not apply to it. If footage is included as part of a brief of evidence it will be supplied to the defendant and their legal team, but otherwise an individual will have to make a request to view the footage at a police station, by appointment.

“This will be arranged except in circumstances where allowing the footage to be viewed may put a person in danger or compromise an investigation,” says Barrett.

But King says the uncertainty around these rules and further discretion given to police may hamper an individual’s ability to make a complaint about police conduct. “You can be assured that police will rely upon it when it suits them,” he says.

A key argument offered in favour of the police cameras is the ability to capture evidence and statements from victims of family violence, which can then be used in court thanks to new laws passed by the state government. This occurred for the first time last month, and was a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Family Violence, with an aim to help victims avoid giving evidence directly in court.

But Poole says there is also a risk that the cameras could “undermine the consensual participation” of victims of family violence in the courts.

“How it’s being used in other jurisdictions is to film reluctant victims and use it as testimony even if the victim doesn’t want to be a witness, as a way to force them into it,” she says. “This might be someone who’s really distressed, and they take video footage of them with no lawyer – they don’t get to think about what they’re going to say.”

A Victoria Police spokesperson said “informed consent” will still be required from the victim prior to them making the statement, and the process will reduce the trauma associated with giving evidence in court.

The American company providing the cameras has also been involved in controversy. The Victorian government awarded the tender for the cameras to connected law-enforcement technologies provider Axon earlier this year, along with a five-year subscription to its cloud storage system to house the footage.

It was reported last year that Axon was using artificial intelligence to extract data from the footage to identify objects and people, and is also looking to develop “predictive policing software”, sparking concerns from privacy groups. It remains unclear if footage from Victoria will also be used in this way.

The largest study completed on police body-worn cameras to date was released in October 2017 by a team that was embedded in the office of the mayor of the District of Columbia. It found that the cameras make little difference to the number of forceful incidents involving police and civilian complaints.

The researchers concluded: “Law enforcement agencies ... that are considering adopting body-worn cameras should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behaviour, solely from the deployment of this technology.”

Police cameras have now been rolled out, or are in the process of being deployed, in most Australian states and territories, with largely similar rules and guidelines as those in Victoria. But for the community and legal groups that raised concerns with the rollout in Victoria at the start of the year, the issues remain.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "Digital capture". Subscribe here.

Denham Sadler
is a freelance writer based in Melbourne.