Speaking of unintended consequences and benefits that are difficult to quantify…
During yesterday’s edition of All Things Considered, NPR broadcasted a story detailing the lack of substantive data supporting police body cameras..
Wearable video cameras are fast becoming standard-issue gear for American police. The cameras promise a technological answer to complaints about racial bias and excessive force.
But in fact, the beneficial effects of body cameras are not well-established yet. And the police departments that rushed to buy them are now dealing with some unintended consequences.
The people who like body cameras always point to a study done in Rialto, Calif., in 2012. Researchers found that officers who wore cameras used force less often — incidents dropped by more than 50 percent. That settles it, right?
But one of the researchers who ran the study, Alex Sutherland of the University of Cambridge, says Rialto was not a definitive answer on the effectiveness of cameras.
“The Rialto study is one study. And it could be a fluke,” Sutherland says.
“It’s a small department,” he says. “The police chief was kind of involved in implementation.” Sutherland says that if these particular circumstances aren’t present, then perhaps these cameras “wouldn’t be as effective. But we just simply don’t know that at the moment.”
Some of the unanswered questions: Did the cameras make the difference, or was it the officers’ verbal warnings about being recorded? How important was the camera’s novelty — after all, this was three years ago; does the effect fade as people get used to the cameras?
Sutherland says we can’t say anything definitive until more studies are done, in more places.
“If public money is being spent on this technology, the onus is certain to make sure that it’s being evaluated as it’s being rolled out, rather than deciding that it works and then that’s that,” Sutherland says.
There are currently bills in the Georgia House and Senate that would mandate body cameras for all law enforcement officers in the state; if it becomes law, local governments in every corner of Georgia will presumably need to come up with a way to fund this mandate, which is estimated to run about $125 million for the first three years. Several Georgia police departments, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, have already purchased body cameras, so they are taking on the uncharted task of determining how these cameras impact their community and their police force, but it’s arguably premature to require these cameras for every law enforcement officer in the state with so little data supporting their universal adoption.