The New York Times on Friday reported that the largest and most rigorous study to date came out on the use of body cameras by the police, and the results are surprising to both police and researchers – but, frankly, not to me as I’ll explain shortly.
In a study conducted over a period of seven months, over 1000 Washington, D.C., police officers were assigned cameras and another 1000 were not. The Times notes: “Researchers tracked use-of-force incidents, civilian complaints, charging decisions and other outcomes to see if the cameras changed behavior. But on every metric, the effects were too small to be statistically significant. Officers with cameras used force and faced civilian complaints at about the same rates as officers without cameras.
“These results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations” of cameras’ ability to make a “large-scale behavioral change in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.,” concluded the study.
“This is the most important empirical study on the impact of police body-worn cameras to date,” said Harlan Yu from Upturn, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit consulting company that studies how technology affects social issues. It was not directly involved in the research. “The results call into question whether police departments should be adopting body-worn cameras, given their high cost.”
No – the results actually call into question whether people who are conducting this research really understand why cameras are valuable. The expectation that the presence of cameras alone would
result in a downturn in complaints is a naïve view that fails to understand the problem with policing. Instead, what the results demonstrate is that body-worn cameras will only be as good as the administrative and oversight rules of a given department.
The first problem is that in order for the observation element of cameras to work, police officers have to know that they are violating rules and rights to begin with – and that is on shaky ground.
Talking with some folks locally, the view is that DOJ investigations into police departments have discovered blatant unconstitutional policing. There is a belief that some of the police officers in some of these agencies have no idea that they are violating the rights of their subjects. Some of this is due to poor training and some of this is due to cultural problems within their departments.
But the second part of this is that, in order for these practices to change, departments need to either receive complaints or review video, identify violations and then hold the officer accountable. And in many places that is not happening.
For instance, in the case of Armani Lee, an attempted murder suspect shot in the back by police officers in Sacramento, the police said that they did not wear body cameras and failed to activate vehicle dash cams during the pursuit on Del Paso Boulevard in February.
In Minnesota in July, the police shot and killed Justine Ruszczyk in a high profile case, and the media reported, “Minneapolis officers failed to turn on their body cameras in the first fatal police shooting since the city began equipping cops with the devices last year.”
The Washington Post reports that, across the country, officers fail regularly to turn on their cameras, in part due to lack of training and oversight.
In our view, the presence of cameras by themselves are not going to change policing behavior. That will require oversight and administrative action.
For example, a complaint comes in about a police officer who punched an alleged suspect in the face during the serving of a search warrant that resulted in the arrest of the suspect.
The case goes to trial, and the officers testify – falsely – about the incident, but the jury has video and is able to acquit the suspect on the charge of resisting arrest.
In this case, not only is there video but actual transcripts from the trial which showed the two officers punched the subject and then lied about it on the stand.
There was never a complaint filed, but because it was caught on video the police were able to review the video and testimony. They investigated the incident and determined that the conduct was inappropriate and ended up reprimanding the officers involved in the incident.
The key to this case was not the presence of the camera as a deterrent to bad behavior that resulted in changed behavior.
Rather it was the value of the camera as evidence itself. It enabled the upper brass at the police station to investigate a case where no actual complaint came forward and, even if it had, there never would have been a sustained complaint previously.
Of course, if the agency is not willing to hold officers accountable – and many agencies are not – then what use is the body camera? And that is why the study itself is problematic in terms of the findings.
In our view, installing body-worn cameras is only the first step. As many cases show, the second step is to require the officers to use them every single time as the rules of the department allow. And the third step is to have a police oversight process that regularly reviews the video and holds officers accountable when they break department rules or, worse yet, violate the suspect’s constitutional rights.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
Come see the Vanguard Event – “In Search of Gideon” – which highlights some of the key work performed by the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office…