Should We Reassess Police Body Cameras Based on Latest Study?

A major new study of body cameras and the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) that was released last month found that the wearing of body cameras had no statistically significant effect on the number of use-of-force incidents and civilian complaints recorded.

How much of a reassessment of body cameras should this study prompt?

First of all, let’s note that this study was only focused on one aspect of body camera police oversight — their deterrent effect on officers inclined to engage in abusive or unprofessional behavior — which is only one possible benefit of the technology from a civil liberties perspective. It does not have implications for other potential benefits of body cameras such as resolution of factual disputes in critical incidents or other situations where complaints have been lodged against officers, better training, better overall police transparency and accountability, and increased trust between police departments and communities. It also does not have implications for the chief downsides of police body cameras: their potential to invade privacy, their risk of being reduced to just another tool for government mass surveillance, for example through their integration with face recognition capability, and their risk of becoming a propaganda tool if the police control what footage the public is allowed to see.

Still, the finding in this study seems surprising. A big reason we are concerned about surveillance is that it changes people’s behavior. There is a wealth of social science research showing that being monitored brings chilling effects and otherwise changes behavior. When it comes to police officers, who have been given the authority to use brutal, sometimes deadly force, we think such monitoring would be helpful if it improves their behavior. That is why we have been willing to accept body cameras if they are deployed with strong policies, despite the fact that they are government cameras with a very real potential to invade privacy.

So it seems surprising that police officers would not be affected by the monitoring (via bodycams) that they are being subjected to.

There are a number of possible explanations for the finding. They include:

  • MPD officers are already so good that there was no room for improvement via body cameras. As our colleague Monica Hopkins-Maxwell of the ACLU of DC observes in response to this study, that is hardly the case. However, there are far more troubled police departments in the U.S. than DC’s, and it stands to reason that the more ill-trained a police force, the more benefits bodycams will bring as a deterrent to bad officer behavior.
  • At the other end of the spectrum, officers might not change their behavior because they feel confident they won’t face any consequences for anything they are recorded doing. As Hopkins-Maxwell points out, experts have been “surprised” to find that the U.S. Attorney in D.C. hasn’t brought a single criminal charge against an MPD officer for using lethal force.
  • All officers have become aware of the ubiquity of cameras, including fixed CCTV cameras as well as bystander video, dashcam video, and the body cameras that some other officers around were wearing. Although some officers wore cameras and others didn’t, even the officers without cameras felt the same restraining effect as those wearing them. The authors of the study note that fully 70 percent of all calls for service examined in the study had at least one bodycam-wearing officer at the scene. If one officer had a bodycam and a control group officer didn’t, that one bodycam likely had an effect on both officers’ behavior. Officer awareness that the study was underway could have also contributed to a general atmosphere among officers of being under scrutiny, even among those without cameras.
  • It’s also possible that body cameras could have a strong deterrent effect in certain situations, but that those situations are too rare to show up in the statistics. Perhaps most police encounters happen in places where other people are or could be watching, and so officers’ general awareness that everyone carries a video camera restrains their behavior. But there could be very rare situations where a) an officer is alone with a civilian, b) is tempted to engage in abuse, and c) where only the presence of the body camera restrains that officer. If that were the case, the cameras would be providing a benefit that simply can’t be picked up in the statistical analysis.

In the end, we just don’t know the answers now. It is possible that further studies will shed more light. But at the end of the day, when it comes to assessing the costs and benefits of police body cameras, the most significant factor in the overall analysis remains whether cameras are deployed with a good policy framework to maximize their role as an oversight and community trust-building tool, and minimize their potential privacy invasiveness. Although frequently mischaracterized, we at the national ACLU have always been careful never to endorse body cameras in the sense of saying, “we think every police officer in America should be wearing one.” What we have consistently said is, “IF you as a community decide you want the oversight the cameras can bring despite their downsides for privacy, we think the cameras are okay if deployed with good policies in place.”

One final point: there is a real tendency for policymakers’ conventional wisdom to lurch from certitude to certitude based on the results of the latest study. For several years, conventional wisdom among body camera-watchers was that the technology would have dramatic effects, a view that derived largely from a single small study conducted in Rialto, California. That study (as we have been saying for several years) should not have been given the weight it was. This study is much larger and more rigorous, but neither should it be regarded as definitive. Even in physics, the findings of an experiment have to be repeated numerous times before it is generally accepted as true. When it comes to the incredibly complex and hard-to-study subject of techno-human systems such as body cameras, that should be true many times over.

In the final analysis, the police body camera debate should largely be focused on whether the benefits body cameras can bring for police transparency and accountability justify their costs, including their risks to privacy, and what laws and policies can be put in place to maximize the cameras’ benefits while minimizing their drawbacks. If body cameras help to reduce the occurrence of abuse, that would be a major benefit, but it would still be just one such benefit.

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SheepDog

Perhaps the study showed no real change simply because the VAST majority of police officers just go out and try to do their best every day. They don't want to use force, but will if necessary. They don't steal, rape, abuse people because it is wrong to do so, not just because a camera is there. While everyone admits there are bad cops, perhaps it just happens to be true that most cops are honest, hard-working men and women who just try to do the right thing every day, cameras or not.

Anonymous

Right because getting rid of the very thing that puts a stop to false accusations against cops is a bad thing, for you. Go back to fighting for pedophile rights.

your lord and master

Oh look democrats just realized that body cameras are exposing the horrible behavior they're encouraging among suspects and criminals! Get rid of them so we can finally have someone else to defend other than our pedophile staff!

Anonymous

Yeah, we've got to get rid of these cameras because when a motorist tries to make a false accusation that a cop was behaving in a racist manner, the camera proves how the situation actually "went down" and that the cop was behaving in a very professional manner.
We certainly can't have something like THAT.

Anonymous

Body cams will put the ACLU out of business.

The ACLU is stupid

You're all racist and should be shot or hanged for being as stupid as you are.

Anonymous

Now the left wants the cameras removed because the video evidence isnt adding up to the account of the so called victim? Seems reasonable. It no longer fits your agenda because it proves in those instances the perp more often than not was acting out in an ignorant manner and the police action taken were justified. The cameras make it harder for you to say the cop is lying so its just best to remove them now.

Nathaniel Minilik

body cams are necessary

Nathaniel Minilik

Dear Mr. Marlow,

I have read your article “Should We Reassess Police Body Cameras,” and I for one have to say I totally disagree with your idea to forgo police body cameras. Police body cameras are used to make sure not only is the police officers life is treated fairly and equally but the citizen as well. With body cameras this makes sure that us as American citizens are treated with utmost respect and that our amendments are not being broken. I believe body cameras should stay intact to police officers because it is the best option for us citizens as it can speak for the truth.

In the article Mr. Marlow states how “having body cameras had no significant effect on the number of use of force incidents and civilian complaints recorded.” This shows that with cameras placed this now makes it easier for both the police officer and the citizen to have mutual respect for one another as they interact with each other. With body cameras present this makes both sides of the party to have to act appropriately and not disrespect one another, since there is a camera this makes everyone stay calm and act good. Marlowe also states how “a big reason we are concerned about surveillance is that it changes people’s behaviors.” This should be a good think as it now forces both sides to be equally nice and not act out on one another. This should be a benefit for the police officers as they would now have visual proof if they were to have to use any weapons on what transpired during the interaction. It could also help the citizen as well as maybe they feel like they were mistreated by the police officer, they could take it up to court and order it to be looked at and under investigation.

Deeper into the article Marlow states how “that 70 percent of all calls for service examined in the study had at least one body cap wearing officer at the scene. If one officer out the group didn’t have a body cam it was likely that the officers behavior would’ve had an effect on the outcome.” This goes to show that not all officers are really what they claim to be, not all officers are good people so to take away one thing us citizens believe can help protect themselves from police brutality and favoritism, to take it away is just outrageous. How are we supposed to feel comfortable if there's nobody watching and the officers word being taken over ours any day or any time of the week. This proves body cameras are extremely necessary and no matter what the statistics prove or show it will always help the situation as multiple people would be able to dissect what really went down.

Another thing Marlow states is how it could have “potential privacy invasiveness,” although this could be true and the amount of privacy will decrease, there is no need for privacy or secrecy if everyone is doing everything correct and nothing sneaky or behind someone's back. If both parties play their role correctly it should not affect anyone in any big way as they both do what they should be doing. Police body cameras are now being very overlooked for its main purpose, instead of worrying about privacy and percentages we should focus on how this will increase the public's compassion towards their local authorities and they will also have more trust and respect for them now knowing everything will be caught on camera. This should be a win-win for both parties as it will help both sides with any arguments to come.

As a citizen I believe we do have the right to make sure that every time we are stopped or questioned by law enforcement for it to all be caught on video cameras both clearly and audio with this, it will make sure all our rights are not being provoked or taken advantage of. Not everyone knows the law or their rights at the top of their head, and imagine how hard it would be if stopped by a cop, all your thought is going to be to not be paranoid and to focus on the cop not allowing you time to actually think about the situation. If these actions are recorded it will help police be more under control and also more well aware for them to be on their game because with one slip up can cost them their job. Body cameras are indeed a necessity when coming to police work because like they say “the video never lies.”

Anonymous

Police body worn cameras, or BWCs, have begun to revolutionize the way agencies approach many aspects of patrol duties. Additionally, the use of these cameras creates special challenges for law enforcement agency’s administrations. Most notably, cost, data storage, server space, confidentiality of personal identifying information, and other associated issues face agencies determining whether they would utilize this tool. One of the most interesting developments with respect to the effects of BWCs is how they have impacted use of force incidents, and specifically, incidents involving excessive use of force by police. The problem of increased incidents of excessive force by police is caused by lack of accountability. The solution is for police to use body worn cameras (BWCs).
Interestingly enough, an article in the Washington Post by Peter Hermann (2017), indicates that studies show police officers in the District of Columbia are no more or less prone to use of force issues based on the use of body cameras. In short, their officers use force as much with body worn cameras as they do without. Likewise, their officers who wear body cameras are subject to about as many complaints as those who do not. This is a telling sign that either 1) officers are trained appropriately and act accordingly in almost every situation; or 2) officers simply do their work the same regardless of who is watching them. The key statistic in Hermann’s study, however, is that incidents of excessive force went down in frequency after a BWC program was implemented.

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