by Kathrina Dabdoub
During a press conference held on June 4, 2020, Commissioner of Police Major General Antony Anderson stated that the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) has been in the process of acquiring body cameras since last May. This was not the first time such an announcement had been made.
In fact, in November 2019, Anderson declared that body cameras would be deployed “in the first quarter of next year”. It is now the end of the second quarter of 2020 – past Anderson’s stated timeline – and, as Minister of National Security Dr. Horace Chang recently confirmed, the JCF is not currently using the technology.
Over the past six-and-a-half years, the JCF, the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF), and successive Ministers of National Security have made similar declarations of intent to implement the widespread use of body cameras in everyday policing operations. These promises have yet to be fulfilled in any meaningful way.
The first significant commitment dates to January 23, 2014, when then Minister of National Security, Peter Bunting, announced that a project to equip select JCF units with body cameras would be launched in the second half of 2014.
There was no update on this plan until October 2014, when Bunting briefly indicated that the United States would be providing support. In December 2014, he detailed that the US would be contributing $45.4 million worth of equipment. Bunting also claimed that some members of the JCF had already been outfitted with cameras, but did not specify which units were employing them or when and how they were being utilised.
Then, in July 2015, Bunting revealed that the US had acquired about 400 body cameras which were to be donated to the Jamaican government. He remarked that “they [the US] have gone through their procurement process, and the order has been placed, so it’s just a matter of delivery, training, and putting the infrastructure in place.”
Nearly two years after Bunting’s initial declaration, the plan still had not been implemented, at least not on a wide-scale. According to the 2015 JCF Annual Report, 160 cameras had been acquired that year (as opposed to the 400 reportedly ordered) and a pilot project commenced, with the stated expectation that “in the upcoming year the project will be expanded to all operational units.”1
2016 was, perhaps, the most productive year for the initiative. In January, Dr. Carl Williams, then Commissioner of Police, stated that officers would begin wearing body cameras between the first and second quarter of the year.
This promise partially came to fruition on August 25, 2016 with the launch of the Body-Worn Camera Project in collaboration with the US Embassy. However, there was a caveat; only 120 cameras were acquired, to be issued to officers across six police divisions in Kingston & St Andrew. Cameras would be gradually rolled out across the entire JCF following an evaluation of the results of this pilot.2
As commendable as this small step forward may have been, questions persisted. What happened to the 160 cameras from the first “pilot project” that the JCF supposedly implemented just the year prior? Why was a new “pilot” necessary?
Despite the public launch of the Body-Worn Camera Project in August 2016, officers did not promptly begin using the technology while on duty. On February 20, 2017, the Observer reported that officers had “started” using cameras in four police divisions. Likewise, an INDECOM press release from February 21 welcomed the “re-introduction” of body cameras. An explanation was not provided for the delay that occurred in the intervening six months.
In the October-December 2017 Quarterly Report, INDECOM disclosed:
“Of the 30 planned police operations which resulted in 41 deaths in 2017, no [body-worn cameras] were deployed. Of the 16 deaths which arose from planned, stationary vehicle checkpoints, no [body-worn cameras] were deployed. A number of these shootings resulted in significant community concerns and witness accounts differed greatly from that of the JCF.”3
Indeed, by May 2018, the already limited deployment of body cameras had halted. Major General Antony Anderson, who at the time had recently been appointed Commissioner of Police, acknowledged that the project had not been expanded since its launch in mid-2016. He cited various challenges that the JCF had with the cameras:
“One, you don’t have enough, and two, our uniforms don’t have the technology to actually properly wear them… When you introduce new things and new capabilities, it’s a process. You don’t just buy something to stick them on. There’s a training component, there’s an equipment back-up component, a logistics component, a command and control component to it. There’s a whole thing that you used to deliver capabilities, but we haven’t been that good at it [emphasis added].”
Anderson nevertheless affirmed his commitment to the project later that year, in September, when he mentioned that the acquisition of body cameras remained “among his priorities”.
Around the same time, in August 2018, Dr. Horace Chang told Nationwide News that the cameras obtained from the US Embassy “did not work very well”, that their “design was improper”, and that they were “taking the faces of the police”. The US embassy rejected Dr. Chang’s assertion. Additionally, the camera’s ability to discern the identity of an officer is not a hindrance to the use of the technology. In a case of alleged abuse, it would actually be important for holding that officer accountable.
Such excuses – incompatibility with uniforms, defectiveness, inadequate supply, logistical difficulties – have been regurgitated up to this month by JDF Chief of Defence Staff Rocky Meade and again by Dr. Chang and Commissioner Anderson.
Our leaders have had over six years. Why has it taken so long to identify and rectify these problems? Was an official evaluation of the previous “pilots” conducted as planned and, if one was, why hasn’t this information been publicised? Why is this project being treated with such apparent lethargy? The intent of using body cameras is to encourage transparency, so these sporadic updates and unconvincing explanations are an ironic affront to transparency.
Body Cameras are crucial but insufficient
Body cameras are not a cure-all; we cannot expect that, once they are extensively deployed, excessive police violence and abuse will suddenly cease. The efficacy of body cameras as a tool for gathering information and increasing accountability and transparency must be enhanced by a robust policy for use, as well as storage of and access to data.
When officers began wearing the technology in February 2017, INDECOM highlighted the lack of accompanying protocols. Apprehension was also expressed regarding media statements that officers would control “the duration of the coverage (by switching the device on and off at the time of public interactions)”.
The November 2017 Policy & Procedures on Body-Worn Cameras did not alleviate INDECOM’s concern about the JCF’s management of this issue. According to the document, officers should report incidents that “resulted in the activation of [the body-worn camera]” or that “warranted the use of [the body-worn camera], but due to exceptional circumstances, the camera was not used”.4 What qualifies as an “exceptional circumstance” and might such a situation be precisely when footage would be needed as pivotal evidence?
Fittingly, the document also provides that “in situations of sudden and imminent threat, employees should activate the [body-worn camera] as soon as the threat has abated [emphasis added].”5 Civilians have often been killed under conditions that police have characterized as a “threat” (a claim that is also often contradicted by eyewitness accounts). Again, footage from such an event could be decisive. How useful is the camera if it is turned on after the fact? Furthermore, the policy allows officers to deactivate their camera when they are satisfied that “no further useful information can be gleaned from the incident scene.”6 Succinctly put, the phrasing of this document appears to allow officers too much discretion in deciding when to use the cameras.
These are only a few of the many concerns that should be addressed in an updated, strengthened policy. Body cameras without clear, stringent regulations are simply not enough to inspire confidence in the security forces.
These points are not revolutionary. They have been reiterated time and again by Jamaicans for Justice, INDECOM, and various individuals invested in strengthening compliance with human rights principles in Jamaica.
It is shameful that six years of hollow promises necessitates that we continue to rehash the above.