LONDON -- Britain is taking its surveillance to a new level, strapping video cameras to the helmets of its famed bobbies -- a move the government says will cut down on paperwork and help prosecute criminals.
By providing dramatic footage of victims, suspects and witnesses, judges and jurors will be able to "see and hear the incident through the eyes and ears of the officer at the scene," Minister of State for Security Tony McNulty said.
The Home Office said it was allocating $6 million to fund the devices for Britain's 42 police forces -- enough to buy more than 2,000 cameras.
Police already use handheld cameras to monitor crowded events and the new head-mounted devices, worn around the ear or clipped on to a helmet, have been used on a trial basis by police in Plymouth, in southwestern England, since 2005. Similar cameras are used by security guards at sports venues to hunt for soccer hooligans.
Britain is not the first country to use such cameras, versions of which have been tested in Denmark. But the national rollout will tighten Britain's web of video surveillance, already the most extensive in the world. The country is watched over by a network of some 4 million closed-circuit cameras, and privacy advocates complain the average Briton is recorded as many as 300 times a day.
In a report on the Plymouth pilot project published by the Home Office on Thursday, policemen praised the head-held cameras for deterring bad behavior and providing excellent evidence against crooks.
They said rowdy youths quickly calmed when they realized they were being filmed, and those arrested for drunkenness seldom challenged police when shown videos of their behavior.
Prosecutors credited the cameras with emboldening victims of domestic violence to press charges against their partners, although the director of Rights of Women, Ranjit Kaur, said she has not been convinced the footage alone could help secure a conviction.
The Association of Chief Police Officers, an independent body of senior police officials in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, gave the devices a tepid welcome, cautioning that courts might someday expect everything police said to be backed by video evidence.
"The introduction of personal digital recording equipment for police officers and staff brings benefits and risks," the association said in a statement. "We need to guard against creating an expectation that all police activity ought to be supported by the use of digital recording technology."
Civil rights campaigner Liberty praised the guidelines for using the devices included in the Home Office report. Spokeswoman Jen Corlew noted that police were instructed to inform members of the public they were being recorded and that the footage not being used in an investigation had to be erased within a month of its creation.
But Ben Ward, Human Rights Watch's associate Europe director, expressed concern.
"The privacy questions raised by the plan will turn on whether the safeguards, including on notification and storage, are uniformly respected," he said in a telephone interview in London.
The American Civil Liberties Union also expressed concern, predicting the United States would soon follow Britain's lead and subject Americans to even more video surveillance.
"Head-mounted cameras are a little bit of a double edged sword when it comes to civil liberties," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program in Washington, D.C.
"They record police misconduct, improper interrogations and seem to have an effect on having police officers kept in line. But this just becomes another extension of widespread video surveillance," he said in a telephone interview.
Steinhardt predicted the U.S. would soon give police the same power since America already has followed the example of Britain, "the world's innovator when it comes to surveillance and surveillance technology."
Britain's Home Office said the cameras -- which have enough memory to hold 24 hours of video -- were not intended to record continuously. Officers would turn the devices on and off at their discretion, speaking into the camera after turning it on to explain where, when and why they were starting it. A second explanation was required before turning the device off.
The report also cautioned against taking extraneous video when entering private homes, and said officers should turn cameras off during strip searches. But it also threatened disciplinary action against officers who deliberately masked the camera's view or deleted video from the camera's memory.
The Home Office said it was exploring other uses for the devices, including fitting them with the ability to send video live to a command center, or special license-plate recognition software which would enable police to identify stolen or suspicious vehicles just by looking at them.