Why Don’t Police Body Cameras Work Like We Expected?
Police-worn body cameras do not reduce the instances of police use of force. Nor do they reduce citizen complaints about excessive force. These are the unexpected findings from the largest study to date on the subject, which casts doubt on the generally accepted wisdom regarding body camera effectiveness. “We found essentially that we could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras,” said Anita Ravishankar, one of the researchers behind the study.
Will this latest study cause police departments to abandon this expensive technology? In a 2015 survey, 95 percent of police departments reported that they had implemented or planned to implement police-worn body cameras. It seems unlikely that change will occur, considering that these shocking results were released and covered on a Friday — the day of the week favored for dropping unpleasant news so that it may be buried and forgotten over the weekend.
Most involved in this latest study were surprised by the results. After all, much of the recent spending on police-worn body cameras — over $40 million by the federal government and more by state and local governments — was premised on the idea that such a watchful eye and objective record would help deter police violence and excessive use of force. The best evidence for body camera effectiveness was a 2012 study on 54 officers from a police department in Rialto, California. That study showed a reduction in police force and civilian complaints, and the study was cited in a 2013 judicial ruling that ordered New York City’s police department to conduct a yearlong pilot program using body cameras (the results of NYC’s pilot program will be released this spring).
The new study, conducted using 2,224 officers in the Washington, D.C. police department, is the largest of its kind to date. We must now wonder why the most robust study on body-worn cameras did not confirm the effects many expected.
Why Did We Think Body Cameras Were a Good Idea?
The decision to purchase and deploy police-worn body cameras can be thought of as a policy conclusion that flows from a set of assumptions:
- If police know they are being watched, they will be more conscientious.
- If they are more conscientious, they will be less likely to use excessive force, and, in tandem, there will be fewer instances where civilians file complaints about such excessive force.
- Therefore, having police wear body cameras — to watch their tense encounters — will reduce excessive force and civilian complaints.
The results of the new Washington, D.C. study do not support this chain of assumptions and conclusions. What specific assumptions and conclusions from above are wrong? That is still unknown.
It is possible that a watchful eye does not deter police who would use excessive force — perhaps these bad actors forget about, or don’t care about, the potentially incriminating camera evidence.
Maybe the Problem Is with Our Assumptions, Not the Cameras.
Potentially false assumptions may also be the culprit. For example, the thought process that led to putting cameras on cops assumes that civilian complaints track actual instances of police misconduct (not civilian fabrication). In addition, it assumes that police are using excessive force with enough regularity to be measurable — but there may be a flaw in our own assumptions about the prevalence of police misconduct. If there was not much misconduct to begin with, there would not be much to reduce. That would be a very controversial finding, and yet the new data suggests it is a possibility. Chief of Police in Washington, D.C., Peter Newsham admitted his surprise about the study’s results and wondered aloud about his prior assumptions on the prevalence of officer wrongdoing. Perhaps D.C. police “were doing the right thing in the first place,” he said.
Another possibility is that the D.C. police department is an outlier. Even before the body cameras were introduced, the D.C. police department went through a decade of federal oversight. After a series of Washington Postarticles in 1998, “We went through a transformation with regard to use of force when [the federal Department of] Justice came in here,” said Chief Newsham. Michael White, a researcher on body camera programs at Arizona State University, suggested this explanation — that Washington D.C.’s department has already undergone effective reforms — to NPR: “When you have a department in that kind of state, I don’t think you’re going to see large reductions in use of force and complaints, because you don’t need to. There is no large number of excessive uses of force that need to be eliminated.”
As body camera programs are implemented in other police departments with more room to improve, perhaps the body cameras will prove more effective to change behavior (like they did in the earlier 2012 study from Rialto, California). However, it is also possible that the earlier study — done with a relatively small police department — was the outlier. When new metropolitan areas implement body cameras, we may find the results to be more like Washington, D.C. (showing no effect on policing or civilian complaints) than like Rialto, California. Perhaps we will have a better idea once the results of New York City’s pilot program are released this spring.
Other Potential Benefits of Police Body Cameras.
Even if body cameras do not affect police behavior, there are other potential benefits to consider. Police Chief Newsham emphasized this point, explaining that his department has benefitted from using the objective footage taken of tense police encounters: “when we say something [it is valuable] to be able to back it up with a real-world view that others can see.” For example, after a contentious encounter last Christmas, police fatally shot a man whom they claimed was armed with a knife. Although some claimed the man was unarmed, body camera footage corroborated the officer’s version of the event.
While an objective record is valuable, this example of a benefit is a bit jarring considering prior assumptions about body camera programs. Cameras were supposed to deter the use of force, not simply help to justify it. Usually it is easy enough for officers to justify the use of force without needing to spend millions on camera equipment and film data storage. If the real-world benefits of body cameras do not relate to the program’s original goals, we must reassess our prior assumptions and expectations.
This article originally appeared in Forbes.
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