BBC News


Page last updated at 12:26 GMT, Tuesday, 21 April 2009 13:26 UK

When all video all

Police and protesters
Dozens of cameras are trained on the police and crowd at any one time

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Footage of police officers hitting out at the G20 protests has dominated the news for the past fortnight. But what impact has the proliferation of cameras had on policing?

If there is one recurrent theme in the images of the recent G20 protests, it is what's held in the hands raised in the air.

Hundreds of cameras rise out of every sea of protests. In the foreground are the digital SLRs and full-size video cameras of the professional media. But in the background there is a profusion of smaller devices.

A profusion of cameras by the police lines

They are in the background of shots of Nicola Fisher, struck in the leg with a baton, and of Alex Kinnane, hit in the face with a riot shield.

In a time of complaints about the surveillance society, cameras are being used by ordinary people to monitor the activities of those in authority. And the kernel of the idea goes back some years.

"It has been a topic among criminologists ever since the Rodney King incident," says Prof Philip Stenning, a criminologist at Keele University. "It's the first obvious example of how the police were brought to book as a result of a camera in the hands of a private citizen."

The now famous footage of King being beaten by LAPD officers sparked riots after they were acquitted.

Ian Tomlinson's death is being investigated

But nearly two decades later, video cameras are everywhere. Increasingly high quality cameras are included in mobile phones, and dedicated cameras are now cheap and compact.

"This has totally changed the landscape in terms of police accountability," says Prof Stenning. "There is nothing they can do which isn't recorded."

The fallout from the proliferation of the cameras is particularly obvious on demonstrations. A battle is being waged.

For some time police have filmed and photographed demonstrations and other public events to spot potential trouble-makers and to pre-emptively gather evidence.

At the same time protesters have taken to monitoring events in order to deter police officers from excessive use of force and to provide evidence for legal action against the authorities or in defence of protesters.

Alex Kinnane is struck in the face with a shield

One such group is FitWatch, who describe themselves as a "fluid group of people who have come together to resist and oppose the tactics of the Forward Intelligence Teams". They attempt to prevent these police teams from taking photographs of protesters, and also take photographs of the officers.

At the same time there is concern among journalists over new anti-terrorism powers being used to stop legitimate filming of officers.

The media is sometimes a little bit over the top in drawing conclusions based on evidence that hasn't been fully tested in a wider context
Prof Philip Stenning

"There is an enormous amount of concern about the surveillance society," says Prof Robert Reiner of the LSE. "It has always been talked about as the powerful surveilling the powerless."

Now, the term "sousveillance", also known as inverse surveillance, has been coined by the Canadian academic Steve Mann.

In the past, complaints against the police have often foundered because of a lack of evidence. The death of anti-fascist activist Blair Peach during a protest in 1979 has always been a cause celebre for campaigners against police use of excessive force. He was allegedly knocked unconscious by a police baton, but in the confusion of a protest, and without video evidence, the exact circumstances of his death could not be proved.

"Traditionally research on the police suggests the main reason why it's extremely difficult to bring officers to book for wrongdoing is that police actions take place in circumstances of low visibility," says Prof Reiner.

Wider context

Of course, both police and protesters can complain about footage being shown out of context. The media plays clips of the most interesting part of the action, but the events leading up to and following it are not always shown.

The head of the Association of Chief Police Officers has insisted the policing of demonstrations in the UK is "proportionate" and that recent criticisms lack objectivity and perspective.

"There is a tendency for judgements through the media - rather than through the proper court channels - in a way which is unfortunate," says Prof Stenning. "The media is sometimes a little bit over the top in drawing conclusions based on evidence that hasn't been fully tested in a wider context."

A piece of video could show an officer striking a protester, but not show the protester assaulting the officer first. The problem is particularly pronounced with stills.

"A snapshot in time doesn't tell the whole of the story," says one police officer, who does not wish to be named. "I could be giving you a kiss on the cheek but if seen the wrong way it could look like I was headbutting you. It doesn't show the whole series of events - what happened minutes before, what happened around the corner.

A snapshot in time doesn't tell the whole of the story. It doesn't show the whole series of events - what happened minutes before, what happened around the corner
Police officer

"We use cameras on helmets too. There's been an expansion in our use of CCTV, so we shouldn't be surprised if it's used against us."

It is perhaps natural in these circumstances that the police would wish to have more thorough video evidence of their own. One avenue is the area of "body worn video devices", typically small cameras attached to the head.

Pilot tests by police in 2006-07 were pronounced a success by the Home Office. Its assessment found that as well as reducing some crime, the use of the headcams reduced the amount of paperwork and, crucially, led to a drop in complaints against the police. There were no complaints against officers wearing the headcams during the pilot period.

But the impact of "citizen journalists" on the way demonstrations are policed is difficult to ascertain. Both Prof Stenning and Prof Reiner suggest there has been little in the way of studies in this area.

"It would be very surprising if most [police officers] would be unaffected," says Prof Reiner.

Any officer would maintain there is no way they would commit an action that was outside the law, whether there were cameras present or not.

But there will also be the knowledge that any use of force, legitimate or dubious, will be judged through the prism of varied sources of video evidence from now on.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Having grown up under the oppressive Suharto regime in Indonesia, and having been on the receiving end of selective release of video footage, I am extremely sceptical of "official" sources. The police have to be accountable for their actions, which is why every time I am "randomly" stopped at airports by plain clothes police officers, if seven times out of seven can be called random, I ask to get their badge numbers, which I believe is required by law. Most times, they refuse. All sides have, do and always will practice edited versions of the truth, but non-official footage will always be needed as a counter balance.
Annas Alamudi, Glasgow, Scotland

Most of the video released is edited and does not show the true picture, it fails to show the lead up to an event and often misses the verbal abuse and threats. Every day acts of bravery by police officers who get hurt and sometimes killed go unreported because it's not newsworthy.

As far as "headcams" go I took part in one of the trials, part of the reason for no complaints is that everything is recorded. When someone I had arrested made a complaint about my actions they were shown the footage. Very quickly they realised what they said I had done was no where near the truth, and the complaint was dropped. The problem with equipping every bobby is cost, £500-£1000 per unit. There is no way forces can afford that.
PS Ruralshire, Southwest

Police Officers should have nothing to fear from anybody filming their legitimate use of reasonable force, nor should they submit to media pressure or 'middle-class outrage' when selective footage is shown of an incident. Such images are part of a wider context and, if criminal or disciplinary proceedings are being considered, should not be broadcast to prevent 'trial by media'. All Police footage and independent CCTV will be made available to the IPCC and CPS following the G20 incidents. How much unedited footage will be presented by the protesters, with their mobile phones, cameras and camcorders? Very little, I would suggest. Those with an agenda will always seek to present the 'facts' in their favour, including selective footage and images open to interpretation. If a minority of individuals, be they Police or protesters, are filmed overstepping the mark, this footage should quite rightly be presented as evidence. The agenda of most Police Officers on the day, however, was no doubt to keep the peace before going home safe and uninjured. I don't think I've seen any footage of that...
Serving officer, Nottinghamshire

It's no surprise to me that "the use of the headcams ... led to a drop in complaints against the police". They know they're being watched, even if they're watching themselves. So they behave. I like that term sousveillance; it's time those in authority were made to obey the same laws as everyone else, from the Police to MPs.
Stan Thomas, Wrexham UK

Perhaps before every decent officer that works in the UK is labelled a thug for not wearing an ID number on his uniform, some thought might be given to the fact that not every external/ jacket, tabard/body armour carrier, in fact comes with somewhere to attach said ID. I can think of two or three bits of kit I am required to wear that do not have any where to display my number.
Pc Kent, Folkestone, Kent, UK

The great British public are constantly watched by CCTV ( more so than in any other country ) so it is little wonder that they use the same medium to watch the watchers. If "we" are being looked at all the time just in case we commit an offence why should "we" not do the same to the "authorities"? You reap what you sow.
Graham, St Ives

How many CCTV cameras are there in London ? Were none of the alleged incidents recorded? I think the bigger picture here (as if the tactics used by police is not big enough), is that the country is covered with a totally useless and very expensive CCTV system, if it is no benefit to public safety what is the point of it? The police (and government) cannot have their cake and eat it, make public ALL the footage or remove the entire useless system.
Amanda Irvine, Glasgow

If the protesters have a problem with police strategies for dealing with violence then they should take it up with the policy makers, not those on the ground doing a difficult job under stressful circumstances. If someone behaved like Nicola Fisher did on a normal day then they would be arrested - something which can't necessarily happen during a violent gathering. I for one support the police actions entirely and am ashamed of the media, some senior officers and members of the public for prematurely condemning policemen on the ground before an investigation has properly taken place.
Ben C, Guildford

We have had years of experience in dealing with this sort of disorder, NI etc. Where have the long full length shields and snatch squads gone? These were purely defensive lines and sound tactics, whereas police today armed with small shields and batons are very aggressive.
George Hudson, Bradford / West Yorkshire

I'm sorry to see the light that has been shone on Police officers here. Not because of what has been revealed, but the *way* in which it has been. For years we have watched protestors hurl shoes, bricks and even petrol bombs at police... yet as soon as a police officer hurts a protester the whole country is up in arms about it! This is simply ridiculous.

In the heated environment of a protest, those who feel threatened may take choose to take action. If a protestor were to hit a police officer that would be much more palatable than the reverse, but it is essentially the same act.
Sam Hissaund, Luton, UK

The actions seen by the police here at the G20 demonstrations are nothing new to the likes of me and thousands like me because we are travelling football fans. For years the police have been allowed to stop us getting on buses, corralling us illegally against walls before force marching us to the ground or railway station or filming us going about our legal business. Why, when I was at Sunderland last weekend did the police film us with a movie type camera for most of the game? I felt like a criminal in the process of committing a crime! Had I been there for a pop concert I would not have been recorded.

No question do I and millions like me believe we are in a police state. They are nothing but legalised thugs and being ex forces I used to give 100% support to the police. Not now. No way never.
Andrew Syborn, Tamworth, Staffs

When CCTV camera systems inexplicably are "not working" when they could potentially hold evidence against public servants and police handheld camera footage is produced selectively, it's no surprise that individuals have identified that the only way to attempt to combat such bias, is to turn the technology against the oppressor and reveal the full story, as happened at the G20, the police soon cry foul when the same techniques they use are turned against them.
Glenn, Brighton

There would be more sympathy for the police force's unilateral use of video evidence if there were less tales of it mysteriously going "missing" when it might incriminate a police officer.
Robert, Minster, Kent

It is obvious from some of the pictures and reports in the news that some of those at this demonstration were there to cause as much trouble as possible. When observations are made and decisions taken, all the facts should be taken into consideration, not just the complainers. I feel that most of the complaints were political. I do not remember all these complaints in the press when the Countryside, pro-fox hunting demonstration took place. There was even more violence there. I wonder why.
M Chambers, Newark, Nottinghamshire

Yes there is an issue with context in which these images are taken. However there is little or no consideration given to that when the authorities are the ones producing the images. It's always a case of what you see is what happened if it suits their purposes. Regardless of that is there any context in which its is acceptable for a British policeman to hit a woman in the face, or a retreating man in the back, or a head in the crowd with a riot shield.
Trevor Smith, Huntingdon

So perhaps the solution to avoid erroneous accusations which in-turn lead to expensive and extensive litigation, is to equip protest venues like a major sporting event. An army of high-definition cameras to cover every angle of the protest, some manned, others remote controlled, and start the recording from the earliest point of protest to the very end to ensure a comprehensive account.
Tim Campbell, Ottawa, Canada

This statement worries me: "We use cameras on helmets too. There's been an expansion in our use of CCTV, so we shouldn't be surprised if it's used against us."

Why use a phrase like "against us"? This implies that video footage is a weapon, and that there is a divide between the goals of the police and the lawful majority. This Us vs Them attitude is surely the problem itself; by distancing (and often placing at diametric opposites) "The Police" from "The People", such clashes are inevitable. If the use of helmet cameras is such a deterrent to the police attracting complaints (either through enhanced evidence or more consequence-conscious officers), why do not all police officers have them fitted? They are surely cheap, portable and reliable enough for all officers, are they not?
TH, Liverpool

They're always telling us if we've done nothing wrong we've got nothing to fear. I don't think it's hypocritical to want to be monitored less and for those in power to be monitored more. It's about accountability and restraint. They do an outstanding job, but they work for us.
Phil Houghton, UK

G20 police action 'unacceptable'
21 Apr 09 |  Politics

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific