One wonders if civil disturbances across the United States during the summer of 2016 following shootings of unarmed suspects by law enforcement officers would have escalated the way they did if the police had used and released body-worn camera evidence, rather than allowing a vacuum to develop in which smartphone video footage dominated social media. It is an interesting point because body-worn technology has been widely used by law enforcement officers since 2014, and it costs tens of millions of dollars.
Discreet cameras that document all incidents on the frontline are no doubt invaluable when it comes to gathering and presenting legal evidence. In the United States, the benefits of body cameras are revolutionizing the jobs of officers on duty, with many police departments adopting this technology. In many cases the technology has already proven to be highly beneficial when dealing with complaints against officers and the treatment of suspects.
According to the New York Times, a Californian police department experienced a staggering 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers within a twelve-month period. These high-capacity cameras are so small that they can be attached to an officer’s collar, cap, or even to the side of their sunglasses, making covert recording available to all officers. More overt cameras can also have a positive effect in changing the behavior of suspects when they realise they are being filmed.
But activation is still discretionary in the United States, and there have been examples of officers not switching them on at key evidence-gathering points—incidents that to date have not resulted in officers being disciplined for breach of compliance. Several companies have developed camera solutions that auto-activate when the gun is unholstered or when the siren goes on. But additional gadgets don’t remove the need for clear policies to govern the technology and associated evidence.
In an email to Bloomberg Businessweek, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley said, “A body-worn camera policy must have some teeth associated with it. Those teeth should include not only a risk of disciplinary action but also perhaps an exclusionary rule for any evidence obtained in an unrecorded encounter. That incident would create an evidentiary presumption against the officer.” Police unions and chiefs may view Stanley’s suggestion as extreme, opting instead to require police officers who fail to record an activity to issue sworn statements citing the reason for the failure.
What are the Benefits of Body Cameras for Retail?
Statistics suggest that violent incidents in the retail space have, at best, flatlined and in some cases, increased, in the last fourteen years. More worrying, the figures that do exist may not reflect the true extent of the problem because many store staff have become desensitized and almost immune to the daily onslaught and treat abuse as part of the job. Consequently, they more often than not fail to report incidents when they occur because they also fear that nothing will change anyway. With more stores using “lone working” technology for opening up and closing stores and increasing incidents of threats at well-rehearsed pinch points in the day (such as refunds, refusal to serve alcohol to minors, and general anti-social behavior), body-worn cameras could serve as useful evidence-gathering technology to complement existing CCTV.
The other major benefit is deterrence. Evidence suggests that the fall in claims against police officers is largely due to the fact that the camera activation can change the behavior of the protagonists and have an active calming effect across proceedings. This is often the case when the camera is visible but not activated. There is an assumption that evidence is being gathered and will be used to determine what really happened as opposed to the claim and counter claim that usually plays out in courtrooms. In retail, such claims and counter claims have resulted in advice simply to pay out because it is less brand damaging than the protracted public scrutiny of a legal claim.
Some of the companies behind body-worn cameras see applications in both loss prevention and health and safety. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) is looking into strategies to reduce malicious slip-and-trip claims, many of which are deliberately staged beyond the scope of the CCTV, often by serial claimants. But this could be the tip of a large iceberg: most retailers are self insured so that bodies such as the ABI do not see the full extent of the malicious claim culture. Shop staff witnessing someone acting suspiciously would be able to activate their camera when engaging with the customer, therefore deterring illegal or fraudulent activity.
Policies engagement of body-worn camera technology is not an off-the-shelf undertaking. All retailers would have to write purpose, policy, and procedure manuals as they would with any major capital investment. High on the body camera policy requirement would be where and how the technology would be used—and abused.
The reverse psychology approach suggests that such devices can embolden staff in the same way that stab-proof vests were viewed as a form of “Have a go, hero” uniform. In other words, staff would seek out confrontation rather than avoid it. However, this is anecdotal rather than supported by hard and fast evidence. The compliance issues are key.
As in the case of a police officer, failure to switch the cameras on at key times could result in a disciplinary action. On this point though, there is plenty of evidence of retail staff not using radio schemes properly because the radios were in the office or in a drawer at the relevant time. In other words, it is simply one more thing for workers who are on the living wage to remember, even though compliance may reduce risks to them in their day-to-day encounters with aggressive customers.
There is also concern around privacy issues. In wide parts of Europe, stores are not allowed to use CCTV camera systems in certain areas because of privacy issues. Body-worn cameras could invoke similar challenges from trade unions and works councils in France, Germany, and Italy. Use and abuse of body-worn cameras or contraventions of the codes drawn up for their use would present an issue for the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) in the UK and the Data Commissioners in other parts of Europe impacted by stricter interpretations of the Data Protection Act. The last thing a store seeking to reduce reputational brand damage would want is an escalation in complaints from customers claiming to have had their privacy infringed—claims that could clog up civil courts for years if not carefully enshrined in a bombproof data protection policy.
There are obviously some far-reaching benefits of body cameras in terms of defusing customer standoffs and reducing claims against stores based upon lack of visual evidence, but all parties would agree that some hurdles need to be worked through before the technology became an everyday part of the work uniform. There are brands, for example, that would not entertain wearing anything other than a discreet panic alarm because of the perception by the customer that they are being watched. It is a little like the arguments for and against retail security guards at the doors—it is a physical reminder to would-be thieves that they are not welcome. But for brand-sensitive and customer-centric retailers, this may be the wrong message. For them, it is service with a smile and not because there is a camera waiting to capture that “You’ve been framed” moment.
This post was excerpted from an article that appeared in LP Magazine Europe in 2016 and was updated July 5, 2017.