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Body worn cameras: nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

This is a story from the FSF archive – the FSF and SD merged to become the FSA in 2019.

Excessive surveillance measure or more accountable officers? Dr Geoff Pearson, senior lecturer in criminal law at Manchester University, looks at the issue of police officers and body worn cameras…

The 2016-17 season is likely to see the continued roll-out of body worn cameras (BWCs) by officers policing at football.

BWCs have been used for a number of years in day-to-day policing by an increasing number of forces and some fans will have already seen them at football matches.

The BWC clips to the front of an officer’s shirt/stab vest and is intended to be switched on to record footage of formal police interactions with members of the public (stop and searches, arrests and so on). They are also sometimes used by police to gather evidence and even take interview statements.

Footage in both daylight and night time is excellent and BWC footage has been used in trials and banning order applications. Is this development something that match-going fans should be wary of or – as many officers suggest – will this assist in securing a safe matchday experience for law-abiding spectators?

The legal position for fans is that because they are in a public space, the police have the right to record them. Furthermore, the police have the right to retain this footage where it will help in the investigation of, or prevention of, crime. Most police forces at football already utilise hand-held video cameras to gather evidence, but there has been disquiet amongst many fans when evidence-gatherers are seen recording crowds of peaceful fans.

There is little doubt that BWCs will increase the surveillance of football fans. Fans should also be aware that although BWCs have screens to show when and what they are recording, many models also have a “stealth” setting which allows for covert video and audio recording.

The argument that “if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” is often used to defend state surveillance, but many law-abiding fans are concerned about the intrusive nature of filming, about being made to feel “like criminals”, and about what happens to the footage.

For example, video footage showing supporters stood next to individuals viewed by football intelligence officers as “risk supporters” has been used as evidence of “association” with troublemakers in order to support s14B Football Banning Order cases (although fortunately fewer forces are willing to use this tactic and fewer Magistrates are willing to accept such evidence).

However there are also sound arguments about how BWCs will benefit fans. Evidence from their use in everyday street policing suggests that they dramatically reduce the amount of unlawful or unnecessary stops and searches.

Many senior officers also favour their use because they “encourage” officers to be more courteous to members of the public. Both developments, if reflected in the football context, will be welcomed by supporters.

It is promising to see that many forces have been sensitive to rolling out BWCs in football without first looking at evidence of their advantages and drawbacks.

Realistically the nationwide use of the BWC in football is probably unstoppable, but it is important that police forces using them in football liaise with fans and representative organisations about when and how BWCs (and the footage captured on them) will be used. 

The FSF blog is the space to challenge perceived wisdom, entertain readers and inform our members. The views expressed are those of the author and they don’t necessarily represent FSF policy and (pay attention journalists) shouldn’t be attributed to the FSF.

Thanks to West Midlands Police for the image used in this blog. Reproduced here under Creative Commons license.

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