The problems with outsourcing police work to cameras

Matt Prior column
Matt Prior column

Now there’s a rare sight: two traffic police cars in the same place

I don’t use a dashcam, despite how useful they can be to prove one’s innocence following a collision.

That’s partly because of the faff of setting one up every time I test a different car, but mostly because of who I might become.

When dashcams first appeared, I didn’t anticipate how they could turn a number of us into – how to put it? – such antagonistic snitches. A bunch of lowdown grasses. Squealers. People thriving on catching other road users making errors and then taking delight in fessing them up online. Could I be that kind of person? Perhaps. Best not find out, I think.


So popular, if that’s the word, is the pastime that it’s encouraged by police services, who appreciate us doing the legwork. They even later release YouTube montages.

In the past week, I’ve also seen videos of a motorcycle rider and a driver both prosecuted for bad behaviour. And in both cases bang to rights too: one careless, one incredibly aggressive.

Both were encouraged into it by the poor behaviour of those around them, either by failing to enter a dual carriageway safely, or by hanging around in the wrong lane until they were undertaken, but that doesn’t excuse the actions. These were rightful, well-deserved prosecutions.

But I’m not sure they’re the only guilty parties in those incidents. There are thousands of videos online uploaded by people who would rather be involved in than avoid an incident they can plainly see coming, just so they can gleefully say they were right when it happens, like a child who taunts a sibling into finally landing the thump that gets them sent to their room. “Ha! Look what I made you do!”

As a motorcyclist and cyclist, I’d rather stay wronged but upright. “I was right” makes for a gloomy epitaph.

It suits police chiefs to appeal for this footage and to use it for prosecutions, though, because it ups their rate of motoring convictions, which, aside from speed camera fines, has stagnated as a result of decades of unforgivable cuts to traffic policing levels. Traffic police represent less than 4% of all police officers – and most are ‘double-hatted’ rather than exclusively policing roads.

In 2017, I interviewed an officer who said I would be “shocked” at how short-handed traffic services are. In his patch, there were frequently just three or four officers for an area of 1.4 million people plus a good stretch of four surrounding motorways. It takes at least four to make a tactical stop. “Without traffic officers, roads become the playground of criminals, idiots and drug/drunk drivers,” he said.

A 2020 report by the Parliamentary Advisory Committee for Transport Safety (PACTS) agreed. “As the number of dedicated roads policing officers has fallen, so too has the number of motoring offences detected, precipitously so for some offences,” it found.

Worse: “Since 2013, there has been no significant reduction in road fatalities related to contributory factors that might be associated with offending.”

Between 2010 and 2014, there was a 22% reduction in dedicated roads policing officers, with a further 18% reduction from 2015 to 2020. So despite cars becoming ever safer, and more cameras to catch specific offences, the risks remain unchanged. Cameras, official or public, might catch individual indiscretions but clearly aren’t improving the whole. In short: to improve matters, we need more traffic police. Senior officers told the PACTS report as much.

Police chiefs know the risks of trial by camera. At a pro-Palestine demo in London recently, a bloke holding a sign saying ‘Hamas is Terrorist’ was wrongly arrested, then later de-arrested, for which the police received a barrage of flak online.

On the defensive, Sir Mark Rowley, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, responded by saying that the police operate in “the glare of hundreds of people who were ready to film their every movement” and that “there aren’t many professions [where one is] filmed and then critiqued by an army of armchair commentators”.

No doubt. But it would be easier to sympathise with the argument if it wasn’t how many police services now outsource prosecution of motoring offences.