Sunday Commentary: Body Cam Study Shows Need for Accountability

In 2015, then-Assistant Chief Darren Pytel presents the proposed Davis PD Body Worn Camera policy

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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10 thoughts on “Sunday Commentary: Body Cam Study Shows Need for Accountability”

  1. Cindy Pickett

    According to psychological research, cameras, mirrors, etc. change individuals’ behavior because they heighten self-awareness. In most of the original self-awareness studies, the cameras and mirrors were intentionally placed so that they were visible to the subject. This is why fake cameras placed in stores reduce shoplifting. Just thinking that you are on camera is often enough to deter crime.
    But body cams are different. When they are placed on the body, the person itself quickly becomes unaware of its presence. Thus, like you, David, I am not surprised by the study results. But as you point out, the cameras and footage are still important tools for collecting evidence even if they don’t change behavior per se.

  2. PhilColeman

    “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 due to cultural problems within their departments.”

    A fascinating assumption and conclusion. We’re asked to believe it, accept it, and be moved towards required reform. All based on some local folks having this view: The DOJ (state or federal?) investigating policing practices discovered blatant (superlative noted) unconstitutional policing.

    That summary comment, alone, begs for more detail, particularly since the problem is so blatant. Whichever justice department make this discovery must surely have rendered at least one detailed study supporting this conclusion. A whole bunch of us missed this revelation when it was first published.

    These are “views” held by “some folks locally.” In the ever-demanding plea for “transparency,” in all things, this comment seems exceedingly vague and opaque.

    Then ambiguity and fact-based accuracy or credibility is further tortured by the the comment, “There is a belief  that some police officers have no idea they are violating the (constitutional) rights of their subjects.”

    OK, fine. Terrible problem that needs prompt attention and correction. But first, just a few definitive questions: Who are the authoritative, credible, and objective source(s) that hold this “belief.” Is this belief shared by (one, two, a thousand) sources supported by any factual studies?

    Or is it just possibly a naked-belief held by X-number of local folks, who really have no idea what they are talking about? It’s a fair question from persons willing to be persuaded if a persuasive argument is offered.  We’ll not even bother to ask for the identities of these local folks and their credentials–because we’ve told repeatedly that such a revelation would bring massive recriminations and retaliations from somebody. This “accountability” thing is to remain one-dimensional, we just accept this view on faith (or prejudice) alone.

    Accusers and provocateurs of every stripe always seem to demand transparency and full accountability for everybody else–but never themselves.

    Returning to those “some” officers who don’t know citizens have Constitutional protections, is there an approximate estimate among the hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers who have this training failure? One would imagine that every law enforcement academy, and every academic environment devoted to police training has some discussion of criminal law. How do you teach such a course without detailing the rights of every U.S. citizen?

    Every local, regional, state, and federal law enforcement agency has published curriculum of the training topics presented. They are funded by public funds and available to public view. How many (even a rough approximation) exist that fail to identify to the constitutional rights of citizens?


      1. John Hobbs

        Phil knows full well that many police officers in the US have no  formal academy or other law enforcement training. And in other departments the training in civil rights is minimal. Firearms and tactics are the matters most discussed, civil rights is not even a footnote in most academies curriculum.

        1. PhilColeman

          I have no such awareness of “many” police officers having no formal training in the United States. If there are many, maybe you, Mr. Hobbs, could identify, say, a “few.”

          With the entire country as a statistical landscape, I suppose if one were to search long enough, there would be a sampling of small rural law enforcement agencies, with little or no formal training. But this is where context is crucial: These still-to-be proven assertions (above) has no utility or application to California law enforcement.

          California requires every law enforcement officer to receive hundreds of hours of formal classroom training as a prerequisite to employment. And that training–which is continuous with periodic updates after the academy– includes many hours of the Constitutional application of the legal rights of citizens. These state-mandated standards have been in place for well over 50 years. Name one California Peace Officer who is not formally trained in accordance with POST standards. We’ll patiently wait.

          Still waiting for any DOJ report that supports these baseless assertions detailed above. Still waiting for anybody to give evidence that refutes my assertion that the sweeping claims of inadequate Constitutional training made as being representative of the entire body of law enforcement.



          1. David Greenwald Post author


            You state: “Still waiting for any DOJ report that supports these baseless assertions detailed above. Still waiting for anybody to give evidence that refutes my assertion that the sweeping claims of inadequate Constitutional training made as being representative of the entire body of law enforcement.”

            That’s not what I wrote.

            This is what I wrote: “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.”

            The DOJ investivetagtion into police departments have discovered blatant unconstitutional policing: For example: The Chicago report concludes, “CPD’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” They add, “Stopped without justification, verbally and physically abused, and in some instances arrested, and then detained without counsel—that is what we heard about over and over again.”

            The Ferguson DOJ report found that “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than public safety needs.” “Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes.”

            I said “some of the police officers” and I said “some of this is due to poor training” – there is a whole segment in the 21st Century Policing report that outlines the need for better training. PERF in their new use of force guidelines did the same.

            So you’ve blatantly overstated my position and appear to ignore major findings by the DOJ. I can go further if you’d like into those reports and show you their training recommendations.

          2. David Greenwald Post author

            Here is a link to the DOJ Report on Chicago:

            Summary: A scathing Justice Department investigation concluded the Chicago Police Department is beset by widespread racial bias, excessive use of force, poor training and feckless oversight of officers accused of misconduct.

            Quote: “Our review further determined that CPD and IPRA do not adequately respond to incidents in which officers used unreasonable or unnecessary force—including force that resulted in a person’s death and the officer’s stated justification was at odds with the physical evidence. Although IPRA’s deficiencies—discussed in the Accountability Section of our Report—have played a central role in allowing patterns of unconstitutional force to persist, IPRA cannot eliminate the pattern of misconduct we found unless CPD’s force reporting and investigations change fundamentally as well.”

            Quote: “We found that deficiencies in officer training are exacerbated by the lack of adequate supervision CPD provides to officers in the field, which further contributes to CPD’s pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.”

            Phil: please admit you were wrong, I really don’t have time to do this and it’s pretty blatant.

  3. Tia Will


    I am willing to speak using my own name. I am also going to site the source of my information since I am certainly no expert in law enforcement/policing. The source of the following is the Citizens Academy held in Woodland as information on the functioning of the police/judicial system in the cities and county. The limitation of course is that this is information that is presented for the benefit of the lay public and is not reflective of the training that is provided to officers of any specific department.

    It was clear from the beginning and held true throughout the course that the basic assumption was of a “good guys” ( the police and judicial system) vs “bad guys”, anyone suspected of committing a crime scenario. This was not my “interpretation”. That specific phrase was used many, many times over multiple sessions. There was also both an implied and specific statement that while suspects often lied, police never did. The latter is patently not true from many cases that have come to light. And yet, when I challenged one of the presenters ( who at this time I shall leave nameless) about the ability, indeed instruction, of police to lie to suspects to get a confession, he stated that this would occur only in the most urgent of circumstances with an innocent life in imminent risk. Another statement which is clearly false.

    While it is my belief that most police officers are honest individuals doing their best to do a good job under difficulty circumstances, it is my certainty that they remain human beings like all the rest of us. This generally will mean that if they can hide malfeasance, or present events in the most favorable light to themselves, they will do so. To pretend that human nature changes when one puts on a given article of clothing whether surgical gown, or judges robes, or police uniform is naive at best and disingenuous at worst.




  4. PhilColeman


    Your spirit of willingness to hear all sides of an issue fairly and openly compels me to respond in an area where I’ve always seen these “he said/she said” scenarios are almost never fruitful. This time it just might be.

    From past posts, I’ve noted that you are quite disturbed by the notion that peace officers may deliberately lie while in the performance of their duties. I feel truly honored you hold police officers to such a high standard. Conceptually, I agree, we should be better than saints.

    Yes it is true, law enforcement officers may lie and deliberately deceive persons in select circumstances. “Select circumstances” is most easily understood when an officer is in an undercover role, and lying is part of the penetration in the world of practiced criminality.

    No law enforcement officer is EVER entitled to deliberately lie in any official oral or written report or while giving testimony in a court of law. No suggestion is made here this never happens, it certainly does. I’ve lied on duty (see below). But should such deceit ever be detected, and determined to be harmful or spiteful, the officer is subject to severe sanctions, including termination as a prime alternative. Which leads to the next point.

    Most every Rules &Regulations manual, General Orders, Policy Guide, whatever the name, has a provision speaking to “Truthfulness.” Since I’ve written these rules, I’ll give you a representative wording of the Rule on Truthfulness: “A duty police officer shall be truthful at all times, except for the furtherance of a defined police purpose.”

    Something that may give you a higher level of comfort, law enforcement policy makers will often include a specific clause in the Truthfulness rule that stipulates, “Lying or withholding information in the context of an internal investigation of themselves or others, shall be cause for termination”

    Police labor lawyers argue that their clients are entitled to 5th Amendment privilege.  Not so, in an internal administrative investigation, although should the officer be charged criminally, it does.

    Everybody lies. If you are wearing a ridiculous-looking hat and ask me for an opinion, I’ll lie to you in my response. When a grieving spouse asks a police officer if her slain husband suffered while trapped under a vehicle from a horrible traffic accident, the officer will lie if necessary to spare the widow undue pain. That officer will not be punished if detected.

    Finally, Tia, police officers are human, possessed with many of the failings of all other humans, including compassion interfering with devotion to duty. The rigorous selection and training process excludes most, not all, the unqualified. Where police officers are “extraordinary” is that represent a select few human beings who are able to routinely perform in extraordinary circumstances– do so admirably–and never be identified or recognized for that level of performance. And that non-recognition includes failure of the internal review and inspection.




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