On April 18, a video showing an altercation between a doctor and law enforcement agents over the 'Movement Pass' during the Covid lockdown went viral on social media shocking Bangladeshis of all ages. The heated exchange taking place at Elephant Road in Dhaka sparked nationwide discussions and arguments.
Bangladesh Police Service Association and Bangladesh Medical Association both issued statements on the incident, contradicting each other. While the statement by the Police Service Association condemned the doctor's 'indecent behaviour' towards the policemen and the magistrate present at the scene, the Medical Association's statement expressed deep concern at the 'harassment' of the doctor.
Contradictory statements concerning the same event are not uncommon in Bangladesh, however. Just a day before the above mentioned event, a demonstration of workers demanding arrears and better working conditions in an under-construction power plant at Banshkhali, Chattorgram turned into a bloody event.
According to initial media reports, police sources claimed that the protestors attacked the plant and the police forces stationed there, which prompted police-firing that killed five (the event also caused more than 20 people, including three policemen, to be injured). The event saw burning of a few vehicles as well at the scene, which the police attributed to the protestors.
Statements by workers present at the demonstration starkly contradicted the ones of the police. They claimed that the police fired at the protestors indiscriminately while at the same time burned the vehicles themselves.
Events like these have taken place in the past as well, which beg the question, is it time to introduce body-worn cameras for the law enforcement agencies in order to have an independent account of these events? Will a better surveillance system lead to better policing?
Body-worn cameras (BWC) are already in use by police as well as other law enforcement agencies of various countries like the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, China and others. Though BWCs put a heavy burden on the taxpayers, recent events in many countries have shown that they can reveal horrific crimes, while at the same time, can protect honest police officers from false accusations.
The infamous killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota, US sparked worldwide protests against racism in 2020. BWC footages from officers present at the scene have been extensively used by the court in that case, leading Derek Chauvin, the accused cop, to be convicted guilty of murder on April 20, 2021.
A similar event in Minnesota a few days ago resulted in the arrest of another police officer, Kim Potter, whose body-worn camera showed how she shot an unarmed man.
On the other hand, body camera footage actually helped policemen in Arkansas, US, in one event where local policemen were accused of 'police brutality' when a midnight investigation by on-duty cops of a domestic disturbance case in the city of Bentonville resulted in the death of a 37 year old man.
BWC footage showed that the man who was accused of hurting his elderly father, ignored the officers' request and sought to attack them with a knife before the policemen were forced to shoot him dead. The footage cleared the names of the officers involved in a subsequent investigation.
All these do point towards the fact that a better and more reliable surveillance system might just help everyone involved in these situations and could come in quite handy in Bangladesh as well.
But then again, surveillance systems do invite certain criticisms. Many private individuals, veteran cops, as well as human rights groups around the world have criticised BWC-related policies, citing concerns about infringing upon individual privacy (of both the public and the police). News outlets such as VOX, as well as others, have also cited studies which have shown that body cameras haven't been quite as effective as expected.
Then there's the question of 'funding'.
Pewtrusts.org in one of their articles on the cost of BWCs quotes Viridian Weapon Technologies, which estimated that, "it would cost $5,000 to use and store data from one body camera for five years". Considering the number of policemen and other law enforcement agents active in Bangladesh, it would cost a fortune to fund this initiative.
Similarly, Cato Institute in one of their studies showed that while 89% of Americans supported the use of body cameras for police, only 51% were willing to pay extra taxes for it! This problem would of course be felt far more severely in a developing country like ours.
But when all is said and done, viral videos on social media sites captured by amateur bystanders have given many hope that a well regulated surveillance system could one day help the criminal justice system tremendously in bringing actual events to light for the courts to judge, as well as to moderate behaviours of everyone involved in these matters.
It may enhance people's faith in law enforcement agencies while at the same time may even save honest policemen (and other law enforcement agents) who work under difficult circumstances from baseless accusations and media trials.
While certain questions do remain on issues such as BWC's alleged infringement of basic rights as well as its affordability for a developing nation like ours, the policymakers should nonetheless keep in mind that BWCs offer opportunities and strategies that are definitely worth thinking about.
The author is a journalist.