The Israel Police began outfitting its officers with body cameras in January 2019, at a cost of tens of millions of shekels, with the declared aim of helping to curb violent incidents and to increase transparency. A year and a half later, however, there is no publicly available evidence that the flagship project has achieved its goals, other than acting as a public relations tool for the police force.
The project has had the support of the police rank and file as well as civil rights organizations and academics. The consensus is that the cameras could reduce the number of violent incidents involving the police and moderate the use of force.
The use of body cameras has become even more prominent in recent months, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, as police were called upon to enforce health-related restrictions. In turn, the number of confrontations between the police and members of the public increased. But video clips posted on social media recently seem to show that the body cameras have failed to reduce the use of force.
Research from around the world has demonstrated a lower incidence of violence between police and citizens in the presence of cameras. In some cases, the cameras were found to be ineffective because they were turned on too late, but no independent research has been carried out on Israel's employement of body cameras since the project was launched.
The police brass has refused to provide data on whether the number of cases in which police have assaulted members of the public has dropped, whether there has been a decline in the use of force and whether the footage has helped cut short legal disputes over exactly what happened in such confrontations.
The actual use of cameras is also not as widespread as was planned. When the project was launched in January 2019, the public security minister at the time, Gilad Erdan, said 6,000 police officers would be outfitted with body cameras by the end of the year and double in the following year. In practice, however, halfway through 2020, roughly 5,500 police officers have cameras, and most of them are either beat police officers or traffic police.
The Yasam special patrol unit, which is involved in a considerable portion of violent confrontations with members of the public, has not yet received a full supply of cameras, and nor have the Border Police. The police told Haaretz that they recently began supplying body cameras to the Yasam unit and will have the unit fully outfitted in the coming months.
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Current police procedure, which is also designed to protect the police officers’ privacy, entails that the camera be switched on from the moment that an officer “asserts their authority,” and that it should be on as soon as contact with a citizen begins. Police are also required to provide the camera footage to the court at any hearing on extending a suspect’s remand. In many cases, however, the police have refrained from producing the footage in court, and in other cases the filming stops as soon as a confrontation with a citizen begins.
Last week, police officers were filmed beating and using an electric taser gun on a Holon resident, David Orel Biton, who violated Health Ministry regulations by not wearing a facemask. However, the video footage was not from the officers’ body cameras, and the police failed to produce the body camera footage at the court hearing on extending Biton’s detention.
Police confiscated the phone of Biton's friend who had filmed the incident at the scene. During the hearing at the Tel Aviv Magistrate's Court, police objected to handing over the footage to the district court judges. Police argued that Biton's friend may have edited the footage – despite the fact that they confiscated the phone at the time of the incident.
In June, a resident of the northern town of Pardes Hannah who was accused of having 20 grams of cocaine in his car was released from custody after body camera footage showed an officer telling a colleague to “shut off the camera.”
In another case last September, an Israeli court ordered the release of a Palestinian resident of the West Bank town of Qalqilyah. The man was arrested while sitting at a café in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva after it became apparent that he did not have a permit to be in Israel. He claimed that he was beaten at a police station, while the police said that he had threatened them. The police officers’ body cameras were switched off when they entered the station, making the conflicting claims more difficult to assess.
The judge took note that the cameras had been switched off, but despite repeated violations of the requirements to turn on the body cameras at the the time of contact, no disciplinary action has been taken against the officers.
The Association of Civil Rights in Israel submitted a Freedom of Information request to the police to see the extent to which police are monitoring compliance with the rule.
“From the responses that we have received, it turns out that there is no monitoring or oversight of police officers’ compliance with the police department’s own rules,” Anne Suciu, a lawyer with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said. “A policeman can turn on a camera in the middle of an incident without there being any monitoring or sanction of any kind.”
Releasing footage when it suits the police
The major beneficiary of the presence of body cameras is the Police Spokesperson’s Office, which has made frequent use of the footage. The office’s staff selectivly use parts of clips that serve the interests of the police, releasing only footage that portrays the force in a positive light.
Last week, police carried out the violent arrest of an 18-year-old with special needs in the southern town of Dimona for not wearing a mask, and passersby filmed the incident. The police later passed the footage on to the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit, and the video attracted wide media coverage and sparked criticism of the police. In response, the police released separate footage from the officers’ body cameras. In another violent incident involving a young man in Tel Aviv, the police also decided to release the body camera footage.
“The entire purpose of the [body camera] project has been to reduce police violence – something that we see is not being achieved – while at the same time increasing the transparency of the work of the police and instilling public trust. But in practice, we are seeing that it is being carried out in a one-sided manner,” Suciu said. “The release of the footage is also made when it suits the police, and frequently critical information is obscured, while when citizens request footage, they are told that it’s investigative material that cannot be released.”
Prof. Barak Ariel, who is on the faculty of both the University of Cambridge and the Institute of Criminology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has advised the research department of the Israel Police since the beginning of the pilot phase of the body camera project. When the project was over, however, the police decided that they could make do without an outside research consultant.
Currently, Ariel, who has an international reputation as an expert on the use of police body cameras, and is a consultant for police departments in a number of countries, including the United States, Australia, and Britain. He expressed dissatisfaction over the Israel Police's lack of transparency on the subject.
“The basic idea of body cameras is increasing transparency for the public and proving that everything’s okay. There is nothing to hide,” Ariel commented. “Currently, there is no way of knowing if the Israel Police body camera project has been successful, because they are not releasing any details regarding what they are doing ... Something huge here is being missed. There’s a tool here to benefit the public and the police but it’s not being taken advantage of.”
“Around the world,” Ariel continued, “we are seeing efforts to use the cameras to present the ‘hero policeman,’ efforts by the police to show that they are doing good work or that the arrests that they make are justified. But these steps don’t necessarily show that the citizen is guilty and sometimes it looks more like police public relations. It’s appropriate for the police to present its good work, but on the other hand, there is a lot of footage showing that the police are not doing their work as they should, and when they are not prepared to release this footage, it’s evidence of a problem, because the whole idea is transparency and improving.”
Although the advantages of the project are clear, it is not certain that it will change the behavior of the police in Israel. In 2019, the journal Criminology & Public Policy published a comprehensive overview of dozens of studies of various police departments on their use of body cameras. Researchers from George Mason University in Virginia found that in practice, in many places the cameras have not consistently or significantly affected police conduct.
The researchers concluded that police forces that want to improve their relations with the public need to use the body cameras as one of a number of tools and policy changes. “It’s likely that body-worn cameras alone will not be an easy panacea for improving police performance, accountability, and relationships with citizens,” one of the authors of the study, George Mason University professor Cynthia Lum said.