The results of another police camera study are in and there’s not much good news in them. While cautiously hailed as tools of accountability, body worn cameras so far have proven to be anything but. In the early days of body camera adoption, a study of a pilot program in Rialto, California produced very positive results.
When cops in a Rialto, California were forced to wear cameras, their use of force dropped by over two-thirds. Additionally, the officers who were not made to wear the cameras used force twice as much as those who did. This strongly suggests the majority of the time police use force is unnecessary. In other words, the majority of the time these officers used force they were simply committing acts of violence which they don’t feel comfortable committing if it’s captured on film…
The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.
The study’s length suggested positive long-term results but the small sample size may have skewed the results. Another contributing factor could have been the “newness” of the devices themselves — something that may have led officers to act with more restraint than usual.
But as more and more police departments have deployed body cameras, the results have been less and less positive. A study published last year suggested body worn cameras actually led to an increase in violence — a 3.64% uptick in fatal shootings by officers. Of course, this increase may have been nothing more than a deviation from the mean. But it still pointed towards cameras being anything but a cheap, scalable fix for officer misconduct.
The latest report covers the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera pilot program. The data is drawn from 2,000 MPD officers over a period of 18 months. Again, the results suggest body cameras aren’t going to change policing for the better. From the report [PDF] (via the New York Times):
We learned that BWCs do not have detectable average effects on documented uses of force or civilian complaints.
We are unable to reject the null hypotheses that BWCs have no effect on police use of force, citizen complaints, policing activity, or judicial outcomes. Because our study has a large enough sample size to detect small effect sizes, these failures to reject the null are unlikely to be due to insufficient statistical power, at least for uses of force and complaints. (Our estimates of average effects in the judicial outcomes category occasionally have much wider confidence intervals.) We consider here a few possible explanations for our null findings.
First and most obviously, it is possible the null finding needs no explanation: the devices, in fact, have no effect on the measured behaviors, and the video footage they produce has no effect on judicial outcomes. Perhaps neither the officer nor citizen involved in an interaction are actually aware of the camera, either due to attention being diverted elsewhere or desensitization over time to the presence of the cameras. Alternately, the officer and citizen may notice the cameras, but other factors in the heat of the moment may override any deterrent effect the cameras may have had.
Cameras do not act as a deterrent for police misconduct, according to these findings. There were case-by-case fluctuations, but the end result remained unchanged.
The report doesn’t discuss any outside factors possibly contributing to this lack of deterrence. But there are several reasons police behavior may remain unmodified after the deployment of cameras. Restrictive public records policies can insulate officers from accountability, leading to little or no change in police behavior. Fortunately, the Metro PD’s BWC footage policy does not automatically exempt it from public records laws, although it does tend to discourage complainants from seeking footage of possible misconduct.
A person alleging non-criminal misconduct related to an interaction with an MPD officer, such as rudeness and unprofessionalism on the part of the officer, shall be able to schedule a time to view unredacted BWC footage of the incident at the police station in the police district where the alleged misconduct occurred…
Another possible contributing factor is the lack of meaningful punishments for officers who fail to activate cameras or tamper with recorded footage. This may not have had much of an effect on this study, as officers knew they were being watched by the group performing the study. The report notes no instances of tampering or questionable camera activation were observed during the 18-month pilot period.
But the biggest contributing factor to zero change in officer behavior is police culture itself. The Metro PD has had its problems with misconduct and excessive force. This is from a 2001 DOJ report on the DC police.
Through analysis of a random sample, the DOJ determined that in approximately 15% of the use of force incidents, the force used by MPD officers was excessive, compared to an expected occurrence rate of 1 to 2%. Other DOJ findings included disproportionate incidents of force used by off-duty officers (14% of incidents); subjects being charged with “assault on a police officer” when force was deployed (1/3 of incidents); incidents of a gun not found on the subject, despite officers reporting that subject appeared to be reaching for a weapon (22% of incidents); and excessive incidents of police dog bites (bites occurring in 70% of canine deployments, compared to an expected bite rate of 10%). The DOJ determined that MPD lacked a comprehensive program to minimize the use of excessive force, had an inadequate system for investigating citizen complaints of officer misconduct, and had significant deficiencies in its training program.
Over the past decade, DC Metro Police has paid out $31.6 million in settlements and fielded nearly 175 civil rights lawsuits. And, in general, use of force by MPD officers has remained constant over the same time period, suggesting it takes a bit more to reach the “excessive force” plateau needed to sustain allegations against officers. While the PD has taken a proactive approach to misconduct and excessive force following the 1999 DOJ investigation, follow-up reports show the PD has narrowed its definition of “force” to exclude many forms of force deployment from its mandatory reporting.
If the consequences for misconduct are minimal, officers won’t change their behavior even if they’ve got cameras pinned to their chests. Cameras are only a small part of police accountability. The largest contributor to better behavior by officers is the department itself. If it makes de-escalation and respectful behavior a priority — and follows this up with serious punishments for violations — cameras will be filled with exonerating footage. If not, force deployments and potential misconduct will remain nearly unchanged as officers have little to fear even if the footage they capture shows them violating rights and deploying excessive force.