Thu | Jul 2, 2020

Editorial | Bodycams should be priority

Published:Thursday | June 4, 2020 | 12:18 AM

THE EXIGENCIES of COVID-19 may now make it more difficult for the Government to afford body cameras for the police force. But that can’t be the reason why the constabulary, or some of its key formations, hasn’t been kitted out with them.

Indeed, cynics might claim that the absence of the bodycams is a reflection of weak policy commitment by the administration, reinforced, perhaps, by resistance to oversight and accountability by the security forces, including the army. We, of course, hope that people who hold these views are wrong, and wish to be so convinced with a fuller, and more technically and economically robust, explanation of the hindrances to the project, thus far.

The issue of the use of bodycams by the security forces was put back into public notice by the Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), the agency that investigates claims of abuse of power by police and soldiers – after a woman was shot to death in her home last week in the community of August Town, St Andrew, allegedly by a soldier pursuing a fleeing suspect with whom the security forces were said to be trading gunfire. Jamaican soldiers routinely support the constabulary in law and order operations.

Residents of the community insist that there was a single entry/exit to the premises where the woman was shot multiple times in her bed. No other person, they claim, was in the room.

According to INDECOM, this investigation would have benefited from the image from the body camera. That is a given.

And neither is the argument new in a country of more than 1,000 murders annually, where the security forces, separately, accounted for nearly 3,600 homicides in the two decades up to 2019, an annual average of 179. The security forces, especially the police, are often accused of extrajudicial killings. However, in the decade of INDECOM’s existence, security forces’ homicides have generally trended downwards, falling to 86 in 2019.

It was against the backdrop of these kinds of numbers that Peter Bunting, the national security minister in the previous administration, announced, at the start of 2014, a plan to introduce bodycams, as well as dashboard cameras for police vehicles.

In August of 2016, Robert Montague, Mr Bunting’s successor in a new administration, announced the launch of a pilot project using bodycams, following the acquisition of 120 cameras, and supporting technologies, paid for by the United States government. Little, however, was ever heard of these cameras – of their efficacy, or of the pilot project.

Indeed, two years ago, when an insurance company was reported to be considering lowering premiums on vehicles with dashcams that would record accidents, this newspaper asked for the whereabouts of the police bodycams, and the state of the pilot project. The answers were non-existent to muffled, although there were decipherable sounds about costs.

ISSUES WITH BODYCAMS

Horace Chang, the current national security minister, said this week that the police had “issues” with cameras it once had, by which we assume he meant they were technically deficient, apart from what he identified as their tendency of “taking the police’s face”. The latter problem, it would seem, would be about where the cameras were placed. He implied, though, that a new operations-style uniform, recently being worn by police commissioner, Antony Anderson, was inspired, in part, by the problem of where to mount the bodycams, the resolution of which shouldn’t have taken four years.

According to Dr Chang, the Government, four years on from the launch of the pilot project and the police have no bodycams in use, is now determining the specifications for ordering 1,200. The Chief of Defence Staff Rocky Meade reported that the army is now doing its own testing of cameras.

But even as he declared the Government’s commitment to acquiring the instruments, Prime Minister Andrew Holness reminded of the fiscal constraint caused by COVID-19. That we understand. But the Government had four years to address this issue, which clearly wasn’t a priority. Many situations in Jamaica, and recent events in the United States, suggest that it should be.