New laws are currently making their way through the Oireachtas legislative process which will allow for the use of body-worn cameras by members of An Garda Síochána.
Minister for Justice Simon Harris says they will significantly strengthen the capacity of the force to tackle criminality.
However, concerns have been raised that the use of such cameras could breach citizens' rights. Groups like the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) have said they pose a significant risk to "a range of human rights, including rights to privacy, data protection, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly."
As part of The Conversation, the team behind RTÉ's Upfront with Katie Hannon asks two people to debate via Whatsapp, to see if they can find common ground.
This week, Liam Herrick of the ICCL was joined by Brendan O’Connor, president of the GRA, which represents rank-and-file Gardai.
Here's their discussion about body cameras.
Brendan O’Connor: Hi Liam. The GRA believes body cameras will improve our members’ safety by possibly deterring some attacks and - when they do occur - gathering evidence to assist in the investigation and prosecution of assaults.
They will serve other victims of crimes, such as domestic violence victims, by providing a more accurate recollection of the impact of the crime than the current reliance on recollection and victim impact statements.
They will bring more transparency to interactions between gardaí and the public, improving officer behavior and professionalism, while also protecting our members from false and vexatious complaints.
Liam Herrick: Hi Brendan. We share all your aims of protecting gardaí from assaults; helping prosecute crimes; and improving garda behaviour. If body cameras delivered on those aims, we’d be all for them! We are just not convinced by the available evidence from countries where they’ve been used that we will see those results.
For ICCL it’s a simple question of a high cost with doubtful benefits.
Brendan O’Connor: We would say that the cost to our members in terms of physical and psychological injuries is incalculable, but it does have a financial cost to the state: absenteeism and injury claims, contested prosecutions, lengthy investigations of vexatious complaints, compensation in cases of misconduct to name some examples. All of those could be potentially reduced with more transparency introduced to citizen-officer interactions.
Our members have a right to a safe workplace like any other worker, and acknowledge it will come at a financial cost as all health and safety equipment does.
Liam Herrick: 100% agree about the importance of a safe workplace, Brendan. But we don’t accept the assumption that these cameras are going to achieve all those benefits. On the issue of health and safety - we think there needs to be a wider discussion about garda safety, including questions of rostering, training and back-up.
On the issue of complaints, there’s a much bigger issue about getting an effective ombudsman system up and running. There is a danger of overestimating the role technology can play.
Brendan O’Connor: We don’t for one second believe technology will solve all the problems we have historically or systematically, nor will it ever be a substitute for effective independent transparent oversight. This is something our association has always called for. We simply believe this technology and equipment has brought benefits in other countries.
We absolutely acknowledge the limitations but believe it has a place as an effective piece of equipment that can be useful in a range of scenarios encountered by operational police personnel. Their success will be dependent on strong and rigorous policies and procedures that protect everyone impacted by their use.
Liam Herrick: Agree with a lot of that Brendan. It is worth focusing on the question of 'rigorous policies and procedures’. Our experience is that there has been a chronic deficit in proper procedures, training and oversight around the use of technology in Irish policing over many years. This is well documented by the Data Protection Commission and is linked to the under-resourcing of technical units within An Garda.
We need to be realistic that Ireland is not starting from a strong position to introduce complicated new tech. This is partly why we are so cautious or skeptical on this issue…
Brendan O’Connor: We can certainly agree on a deficit in training which persists to this very day. Despite the common reference to a rights-based police service, our membership are not facilitated with classroom-based training or discussion about what this means, or what issues they should have a sophisticated understanding of. We ourselves would be advocating for proper training and protocols.
External stakeholders like your own organisation can bring scrutiny and commentary on potential issues while statutory bodies such as the Data Protection Commissioner and the myriad of policing oversight bodies surely have it within their capacity to ensure that things are done correctly and in accordance with best practice.
Otherwise their relevance and purpose would have to be questioned.
Liam Herrick: I think there is a wider question about where ideas like body cameras sit in the wider reform agenda. That relates to the relationship between the public and the gardaí who are filming them. Many victims of crime might be completely against being filmed, for example.
But most interactions between our unarmed gardaí and the public are not about conflict - we all want to develop a positive community service culture around policing. In that context, do we risk going down the road of embedding a very different police-community culture?
Brendan O’Connor: There certainly is a risk that filming would create a barrier to the casual relaxed interaction that defines our style of policing and there is the risk of gardaí becoming robotic and in fear of showing discretion. Yet the counter argument is that the application of discretion will be more transparent and seen to be applied equally across gender, ethnicity, age or socio-economic status.
The rights of victims are enshrined in legislation which will continue to protect them. These are all valid concerns.
However, from our perspective we simply cannot accept that a piece of equipment used in other liberal democracies cannot be used in a manner that protects individuals rights and privacy while enhancing officer safety and also bringing transparency to how they apply and enforce legislation.
Liam Herrick: We understand your position clearly Brendan, and in fairness we recognise that everyone in this debate shares the same goals and concerns. At this stage it’s pretty clear that Government is determined to go ahead with legislation allowing for body cameras. It will fall to the Data Protection Commissioner to decide how they are used, and we are calling for him to trial a pilot project first - to see how they work in practice in the Irish environment, and at the very least to iron out any difficulties or unintended consequences.
At the same time, all the bigger issues of resources, training and oversight won’t go away.
Brendan O’Connor: Well, it has been good to engage and share our different perspectives hopefully whatever emerges will go some way to addressing genuine fears and concerns from all sides of the argument
Liam Herrick: Absolutely Brendan. and hopefully the other pieces of the reform process get delivered sooner rather than later.
Read last week's edition of The Conversation, where we asked about the fairness of using public money to fund private schools, here.