David Willink: Barrister, LAMB Chambers

This feature is part our #LondonCalling series, highlighting perspectives from across the pond

Well, that’s a grandiose title. But the more I’ve thought about a recent piece of policing research, the more I think it’s appropriate.

On both sides of the Atlantic, policing is not without its controversies. In the UK, examples that spring immediately to mind include the policing of the year-long miners’ strike in the 1980s; the mishandling of the investigation of the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence, which resulted in a high-level judicial inquiry branding London’s police force “institutionally racist”; and policing errors that led to the 1989 tragedy at Hillsborough football ground, in which 96 Liverpool supporters died. Faith in the police no longer comes naturally to many people, particularly of the younger generation. It must be earned, and that appears to be an uphill struggle.

This matters. The social contract – the deal whereby the people agree to be governed, and the government agrees to govern under the rule of law – is under pressure as never before. This can be seen in many spheres: a distrust of politicians and the political process, and disengagement from mainstream politics (we have Brexit; you have the presidential race); a cheerful disregard for both the criminal and civil law (the latter all the more important because it corrodes the bonds between citizens inter se as well as between the citizens and the state); increasingly intrusive governance in the name of combatting crime and terrorism; and a lack of respect for, and positive engagement with, the police.

This last one is easily quantified; complaints against the police are recorded and reported. A high level of complaints denotes a strain between the governed and those on the front line of government.

So, what have we learned recently? Research has been published into the effect of police bodycams on the number of complaints made against them. The research covered areas in both the UK and the USA, and concluded that the use of bodycams reduced the number of complaints against the police by 93%. Yes – nine three, ninety-three. 93%. The causes of this astonishing drop appear to be twofold: the knowledge that they are being recorded appears to cause both the officers and the citizens concerned to “cool down”, nudging them to consider their actions more consciously. But the effect on the police officers appeared to be greater: the knowledge that they were being recorded led them to give less cause for complaint. This echoes smaller-scale research last year in Rialto, CA, where the use of bodycams was found not only to reduce complaints by 90%, but also to half the incidents of the use of force by the police.

That means that a second discovery is even more surprising. The research found a significant drop in complaints against officers in the control group – that is, those who were not wearing bodycams; even though, by the design of the research methodology, they were aware that their actions were not being recorded. The research calls this effect “contagious accountability”, and observes that:

Whatever the precise mechanism of the deterrence effect of being watched and, by implication, accountability, all officers in the departments were acutely aware of being observed more closely, with an enhanced transparency apparatus that has never been seen before in day-to-day policing operations. Everyone was affected by it, even when the cameras were not in use, and collectively everyone in the department(s) attracted fewer complaints.

The research is published here

So, police bodycams are A Good Thing, relieving strain on the nexus between government and governed. This got me thinking; what is the impact of other technologies, and their use, on the social contract and the rule of law?

It can of course be argued that all technology is morally neutral, the positive or negative impact deriving solely from the use of it. And in the broadest sense, that’s true: the internet, mobile communications, molecular biology; they can all be used for good or bad. But particular uses of technology can often have an identifiable good, in terms of the social contract: the internet permits greater opportunity for open reporting and scrutiny of the workings of government; mobile communications play a significant role in building and maintaining social bonds; and so on.

Two thoughts, then. First – perhaps this is a challenge for all of us interested in the interface between law and technology in the future: to consider our technologies not just in terms of markets but in terms of whether they strengthen the social contract and the rule of law. And secondly – I wonder what our politicians and judiciary might make of the concept of contagious accountability. Just my two penn’orth.