Beginning next month, Israel Police patrol and traffic officers will begin documenting their encounters with civilians with body cameras attached to their uniforms.
The program was approved on Monday after a three-month pilot program received positive results. The pilot, spearheaded by Interim Commissioner Bentzi Sau, was implemented in Petah Tikva and the Ayalon district. Sau believes that body cameras will be a positive step and help the police improve its relatively negative image with the public.
Police officials realized that video clips documenting violent encounters between police personnel and civilians have been widely shared on social media, attracting media attention and portraying the police in a negative light — as a violent body that oppresses the weak.
In many cases, the officers’ behavior can be explained, but there is often no documentation of the events that led to the violent altercations, and thus the police cannot adequately counter the accusations. “In some cases we see documentation of violence filmed from three stories up, or from a great distance away,” said a senior official in the Israel Police planning directorate. “We don’t hear the conversation between the officer and the civilian. We don’t know what happened before it got violent, but the damage is done and we didn’t have the ability to respond,” continued the official.
Fixing body cameras to police officers is not just meant to improve their public image. Police and civilians will know that their encounter is being documented, and both sides will try to avoid making unnecessary mistakes. Police officials believe that the presence of cameras will lower tensions. Studies have shown that police officers who document their activity work more calmly and effectively, and civilians aware that their encounter with police is being filmed tend to act more respectfully toward officers.
In Austin, Texas and Oakland, California, as well as many other cities throughout the United States, police body cameras have already proven their worth. Cameras were implemented to assist officers in collecting testimony, and to make it difficult for witnesses to retract statements made during documented encounters with police.
The Israel Police recently conducted an experiment under which 12 officers were fitted with body cameras for two weeks. They collected 10 hours’ worth of video in 112 different clips. The clips were presented to various officials throughout the police, who were asked to analyze them without any prior knowledge or awareness of the incidents caught on camera. 75 percent of the incidents were described as situations in which the officer handled things well. In 68 percent of the incidents, the officer was said to have sufficiently listened to the civilian. In 53 percent, the officer was found to have aided the civilian in understanding what was happening. In 65 percent of cases, the civilian treated the officer with respect. In only a third of cases did civilians report a lack of satisfaction with the officer.
The RAND Institute, which researched effectiveness of policing tactics in Israel, also looked into the idea of body cameras. In the same pilot program, researchers found that a quarter of all encounters included arguments between officers and civilians. Only in 43 percent of cases did civilians see officers as trying to solve the problem at hand. In only one third of the encounters were civilians satisfied.
The Israel Police Planning Directorate has approved purchasing of the cameras that will be distributed in the coming days to officers in the field. Within a month, officers will begin documenting all encounters. The Directorate, in charge of patrol, will coordinate documentation for cases in which video clips need to be preserved, and will distribute them to various other police units if they are needed for investigations. Police officials would like to see all encounters between civilians and officers documented, but at this stage cameras will be distributed only to patrol and traffic officers, with other units to receive cameras in the future. There are no plans to equip special units or anti-organized crime units with such cameras.
During the pilot program, officers could decide to document an encounter or not. With the new regulations, officers will be obligated to document all encounters, unless they receive permission from commanding officers to refrain from documenting.
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