CCTV and police body cameras can capture what phones might not - South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings

There are a number of obvious reasons why we need good CCTV coverage in town and city centres, and why it is a good idea for the police to have body worn cameras.

But some reasons are not so obvious.

Take CCTV. When community groups or individual residents ask me for more CCTV cameras, it is usually because they believe they will either act as a deterrent or provide crucial evidence for identifying culprits.

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And, of course, there is truth in that, even though offenders understand this very well and will always try not to look directly towards any cameras, to keep their heads down and their hoodies up. Even so, their movements can be tracked and that may provide valuable clues.

Picture: Simon Hulme.

When the killer of Sir David Amess MP was jailed for his murder earlier this year, many commented on the sheer amount of CCTV footage that the police had brought together, enabling them to trace his movements across London, on public transport and all the way to the MP’s surgery.

The coverage supported the prosecutor’s case about the killer’s intent.

But there is another reason why CCTV and body worn cameras are important and that is not always understood. It can protect the police as much as the public.

Ever since the smartphone made its appearance – in the late 1990s, early 2000s – it has become possible for people to film incidents that suddenly take place around them.

Police officers have become used to the fact that if they attended an incident or make an arrest in the street there is a good chance that someone will film part of what happens.

As Police and Crime Commissioner, I am sent from time to time short clips from mobile phones showing what the sender tells me is ‘proof’ of police heavy handedness or brutality.

And of course, if an officer is using force – taking hold of someone, using a baton, putting on handcuffs, and so on – the few seconds while that is happening do show varying degrees of force.

However, the critical question is not ‘Is force being used?’ because it is. The critical questions are: ‘What led up to this moment? Why did the officer think it necessary to use force? Was this degree of force justified?’ And that short video clip is unlikely to settle any of those questions. Most of the clips I am sent show the point at which some degree of force is used but rarely do they show what led the officer to take the action. Yet that is the crucial issue.

Good CCTV and body worn camera footage – which also captures what the officer is saying to people and what they are saying in return – can, therefore, be very important when an incident comes to be reviewed – for the sake of officers.

Police officers are given considerable powers over us, particularly the power of arrest.

Their authority and ability to use those powers rests on the most fundamental principle of British policing – that what they do, they do with our consent.

For that to happen, we must have trust and confidence in them and know that when force is used there is a very good reason for it and it is used proportionately. The evidence of CCTV and body worn cameras is one way we can be reassured.

There are times when the police need to be protected from damaging commentaries that can result from snatches of footage on mobile phones.

Dr Billings is Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire. This is an edited version of his regular blog.