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German police test body cams

April 10, 2017

Officers in North Rhine-Westphalia will wear cameras in a two-year pilot scheme. Both politicians and police hope camera usage will drive down the number of attacks against officers.

Deutschland Body-Cams
Image: Polizei NRW/MIK NRW/Jochen Tack

Body cams, or body-worn cameras, are used by a growing number of police departments in the US. In the UK, London's Metropolitan Police claimed in October 2016 that they were instituting the "largest rollout of body-worn cameras by police anywhere in the world." And now police in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, will join the club.

On Monday, the state's interior minister, Ralf Jäger, announced the start of a pilot project that will see five police departments across the state don body cams for a trial phase of two years. Officers in the cities of Düsseldorf, Duisburg, Cologne and Wuppertal and in the district of Siegen-Wittgenstein will receive 200 high-resolution cameras that they will wear on patrol.

"With this pilot scheme we want to test the cameras' de-escalating effect in our officers' regular working environment," Jäger said at the press conference. "We want to find out whether we can decrease the number of attacks on officers by employing body cams."

Deutschland Body-Cams
Interior Minister Jäger presented the cameras in Düsseldorf on MondayImage: Polizei NRW/MIK NRW/Jochen Tack

The two-year trial will be continuously evaluated by researchers at the University of Applied Sciences for Public Administration and Management of North Rhine-Westphalia (FHoeV NRW). One thing new about the cameras used is that they'll also record sound, something many other body cams don't do. 

Expecting a preventive effect

In Germany, body cams have been tested or are currently worn by officers in the federal police as well as state police in some cities in Hesse, Bavaria, Rhineland Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg, and in the city state of Hamburg.

Erich Rettinghaus, head of the police union in North Rhine-Westphalia, said police there had lobbied for body cams to be introduced in their state as well. They are hoping that using them will reduce violence against officers on patrol or those called to a crime scene.

Erich Rettinghaus
Rettinghaus: We'll be using the newest technologyImage: Eduard N. Fiegel

"We are hoping it will have a strong preventive effect," Rettinghaus told DW. "The people who encounter police with body cams will be able to see themselves on the camera's screen. We hope that they'll be put off if they were going to use violence, thinking "Ugh, if I'm being recorded, there's no way for me to get out of this one.'"

Rettinghaus admits that not everyone will be deterred by the cameras, saying that someone on drugs or a criminal dead set on escaping police no matter the cost wouldn't care about being recorded.

But any decrease in violence would be a success, since the number of attacks against police has been rising. In North Rhine-Westphalia, almost 14,000 of the state's 45,000 officers were attacked in 2015, the most recent year for which numbers were available. That's an increase of 3 percent compared to 2014. In 497 cases, officers were severely injured.

Complaints in the UK plummeted

Body cams also have an effect on the officers who are wearing them. In the UK, Cambridge University did a long-term study on the effects of body cams in four British police departments and two departments in the US state of California.

Researchers found that complaints about police officers by members of the public had decreased by 93 percent over a 12-month period compared to the year before. They published their results in the journal "Criminal Justice and Behaviour" in September 2016.

Großbritannien bewaffnete Polizisten in London
Guarding the Houses of Parliament in August 2016 - two months later, some 22,000 London police received body camsImage: Getty Images/C. Court

During the trial year, there were 113 complaints against the officers in the trial. In the year before, there had been 1,539.

"Individual officers become more accountable and modify their behavior accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous," lead researcher Barak Ariel told the BBC when the results were published.

Ariel, a lecturer at Cambridge's Institute of Criminology, also pointed out that officers in a control group who went on patrol without wearing body cams also received significantly fewer complaints. According to Ariel, that was due to the way good practices established by the body-cam wearing officers spread across the force - or "contagious accountability," as he calls it. 

'Disservice to the public'

In the US, cameras are also drawing attention as a means to prevent violence by police. They have come into focus ever since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, which is fighting against police violence directed at African-Americans.

USA: Policing the Police

Proponents of body cams say that officers who wear cameras are less likely to use excessive force. Critics have pointed out, however, that recording devices are useless if police can turn them off whenever they want to.

"Having the cameras but giving police officers discretion to turn them off whenever they want is a disservice to the public and to the officers," Chad Marlow, a policy counsel for advocacy group American Civil Liberties Union in New York, told Al Jazeera last fall.

But that's exactly the case with the trial in North Rhine-Westphalia. The officer wearing the camera won't be able to delete anything his or her device recorded. Only a superior is allowed to do that, and it's only possible once the camera is connected to a computer. But Rettinghaus said it would be up to the officers wearing the body cam whether they would even turn it on in the first place.

"It was important to us that personal rights are upheld," police union chief Rettinghaus said. "We made sure to have data protection in place for those who are recorded as well as for those who are doing the recording."

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker