A regulation issued on Tuesday by the police will allow officers to use body camera footage against civilians who they want to sue for slander, running counter to their main purpose of "increasing transparency" and "strengthening public faith in the police,” according to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Thus far, footage from police body cams has only been used in criminal investigations against citizens or for cases within the purview of the Justice Ministry unit which investigates police misconduct. Now, police officers will be able to present the footage as evidence if they sue a citizen who defames them on social media following actions they took during interactions with citizens. The officer will be allowed to obtain the footage from the police records for use in court. The regulation states that there will be an officer designated to convey the footage to those who apply for it.
According to the regulation, if the footage is intended for use in a criminal investigation already underway against the civilian on camera, the investigating unit must authorize giving the footage to the officer. However, without the unit’s authorization, the officer will still be allowed to obtain the identity of the citizen shown on the footage, including their name, address and identity card number.
As opposed to the police, citizens will not be able to obtain the body-cam footage except by application through the Freedom of Information Law. But the police reject most of these requests. In the past, the police have opposed giving information to citizens, including video footage, when the police sue them for slander, saying that to do so might impair the investigation.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel criticized the new regulation. “Body cameras are first and foremost intended to promote transparency and increase public faith in the police, but once again it turns out that the cameras serve the police against citizens,” said ACRI attorney Anne Suciu. “This time, the body cameras serve police who seek to sue citizens who dare to criticize them on social media. Instead of the police putting an end to the wave of suits by police, which threatens to silence public criticism and freedom of expression, it encourages them,” Suciu said.
Use of body cameras by the police began in 2019, in a project estimated at a cost of 50 million shekels ($15.4 million). According to the police, thousands of cameras were distributed to police officers. But as reported in Haaretz, the main beneficiary of the cameras is the police spokesman’s unit. So far the police have not looked comprehensively at the impact of the project, and whether their use has led to a decline in the number of cases in which the police were assaulted or acted toward citizens with needless violence.
A state comptroller’s report published in August stated that “in the two years since the project began, the police have not yet examined the impact on public trust in the police or friction between the police and citizens.” The report shows that in most cases police officers do not operate the cameras in interactions with citizens.
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“The body camera project is very important. It can improve and streamline police work, reduce tension between citizens and the police and increase public faith in the police. However, an essential step by the police to realize these goals is to ensure that every encounter between police and citizens is videotaped according to regulation and the data monitored.”
The only study the police made of body camera use was by the police planning division, which determined that conclusions could not be drawn as to the effectiveness of the project. The study, which was conducted by three officers and not by academic figures, examined the use of the cameras in the Tel Aviv district, which was the first to receive them.
The study revealed that 2019, the first year the cameras were used, saw a decline of 9 percent in cases opened against citizens for assaulting a police officer, and an 8 percent rise in the number of indictments for offenses against police. The study also showed that the use of the cameras did not help shorten legal proceedings against suspects.
Police prosecutors who participated in the study said that some of the officers did not turn the camera on in time. “The moment the camera is turned on is critical,” prosecutors were quoted as saying in the study. “If recording does not begin at the start of the incident, this could impair faith in the officer.”
Studies elsewhere in the world have shown that the earlier the camera is turned on during the encounter between the officer and the civillian, the greater the impact of the video on the encounter. However, the new regulation states that during demonstrations, the camera should be turned on only after the officer performs an arrest or detains a participant for using force. This will prevent anyone watching the video from knowing what occurred before an officer asserted their authority.
The police said in response: “The process of outfitting officers with body cameras is nearing completion and presently there are thousands of body cameras among patrol officers, riot control officers, traffic police, municipal police etc. In addition, 2,200 Border Police members have been given cameras."
“Contrary to the claim, the regulation is not new, but rather an amendment to the existing regulation regarding transfer of materials to a third party, including to police. It is important to emphasize that the regulation was made public with full transparency. We also note that the efficacy of the use of the cameras has already proven itself in a variety of areas.”
The statement added that the project has been “continually overseen by research since the pilot stage, including continued study.”