The first thing you see when you step off the train at Newquay is the police station opposite…Police officers patrol the town centre and the quieter villages further out.So what’s the attraction?
The locals call them Robocops; police officers with three-inch cameras fitted to the side of their heads, electronic wires running down swollen, stab-proof vests. These new "headcams" are being rolled out across the county to combat teen drinking and antisocial behaviour, and to film culprits as young as 11 years old. It might sound like something out of a sci-fi novel, but the cameras are fast becoming part of a copper's armoury.
"They're a superb piece of equipment," says Mark Bolt, an inspector for Devon and Cornwall constabulary, sitting at a table strewn with large black camera cases, batteries and wires. "Members of the public call in with problems of antisocial behaviour, we do a big blitz in their village or town centre for one week – and it all goes quiet. The cameras do not even have to be switched on – children behave better when they think they're being videoed."Well, no.
Otherwise, with CCTV and notices warning about CCTV all over the place, we wouldn’t have any problems.
It’s more the actual presence of a police officer that is having that effect.
The police officers say the cameras are overt, because they can be seen (unlike buttonhole cameras) and that they inform people when the cameras start rolling. Although, it is arguable how many of their inebriated subjects are in a fit state to understand.Well, no-one forced them to get out of their tree.
If they’ve failed to understand that as a result, they will be starring in a little video show they wouldn’t want to upload to YouTube, that's just tough…
Bolt's team mostly focus on children and young people. He explains that one of the main uses of the cameras is to give those acting antisocially and their families a sharp wake-up call. "I showed one mum the footage of her 15-year-old son and he was so disgusted he couldn't even come into the office to watch, let alone look his mum in the eye," he says. "His mum knew he wasn't an angel, but she was shocked by his behaviour. He never came to our attention again."And it isn’t just the benefits to gathering prosecution evidence, either:
Bolt is keen to stress that recording has helped improve behaviour on both sides. Police officers know that their conduct is being recorded as well as that of their subjects, and youngsters think twice about raising false allegations of mistreatment by the police.So, everyone should be happy, right?
But not every police officer welcomes headcams. Graeme Gerrard, deputy chief constable at Cheshire, raises some serious concerns. "I know from my experience that body-worn cameras can be useful in certain situations, but using them in day-to-day operations will raise the evidential bar and increase the pressure to video and audio record every interaction with the public," he says.Well, you already have CCTV, and custody suite cameras. Why not?
What have you got to hide?
"At the moment, the cameras are only switched on when an incident might occur, but defence solicitors are going to want to know why they weren't switched on earlier – what happened in the moment before the cameras started rolling? There's an incentive to film constantly. And if a police officer switches on a camera every time they have an interaction with a member of the public, it is likely to have a detrimental impact on our relationships with them."Well, I’m pretty sure that a ‘detrimental impact on relationships’ can exist when cameras come into the equation, but maybe not quite as you’d imagined…
I guess that ‘nothing to hide, nothing to fear’ bit works both ways, eh?
He is also concerned about the costs, not just of the cameras – which are between £800 and £1,000 each and require updating (the new cameras being discussed in Cornwall are fitted with microchips rather than harddrives, making it easier to transfer data) – but also the investment needed in back-office functions to review, process and store the footage.A public servant worrying about costs?
"What is the cost of downloading and storing this data every time you go out?" asks Gerrard. "Very soon, the cost of these techniques starts to spiral against what benefit they offer."
Oh, yes, there’s a hidden agenda here!
Fiona Blacke, chief executive of the National Youth Agency, warns that their use risks exacerbating the situation rather than addressing the root causes of antisocial behaviour among youngsters.Ahhh, ‘root causes’. I suspect she isn’t talking about the drink and drugs, either…
"There are many alternatives to this kind of action, including working with the young people in the community to understand their motivations and identify solutions to localised issues," she says. "We believe that having the active participation of young people in tackling local issues empowers them to have a more positive role and view of their community."Wow, what a mouthful of excuses and justifications for bad behaviour…
Some of young people in the town welcome the moves to roll out headcams, and stop-and-search patrols. But others remain sceptical. Liam 22, who was charged for being drunk and disorderly earlier this year, says that although he hasn't been filmed by police cameras, he worries that they could be part of an increasingly authoritarian pattern of policing. "The police around here aren't very good anyway," he says. "If there's one bit of antisocial behaviour, the police will use six coppers to restrain you, even if you're not struggling – they're going a step too far."So lay off the antisocial behaviour, then, Liam and there will be no problem.
At 22, you are hardly a teenager, after all…