Scant Evidence – Thus Far – to Support Body Camera Mandates

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.

10 comments

  1. Will Durant says:

    It isn’t too surprising that a researcher would think that more research is required. Like many studies however the results mostly mirrored what common sense dictates anyway. The presence of cameras tended to improve the behavior of both the officers and the citizenry. As discussed previously in one of Mr. Chidi’s posts there are some issues with FOI and privacy, but like many other tools used by law enforcement their benefits outweigh these hindrances. Regardless of whether law enforcement agencies are carrying their own video cameras they are much more prevalent in our society. If cops aren’t supplying their own we can be assured that their only use in the future would be when it benefits the other side.

  2. HCL3 says:

    Body cams will eventually be worn by the majority of LEOs and just like the dash cam they will be used 99% of the time to help convict the suspects officers confront while reminding everyone else how dangerous it is to be a police officer. This is probably not the outcome most body cam advocates want.

    • zedsmith says:

      Its a shame you think so little of people who want body cams. I personally want them for the sake of all parties involved in police interactions.

  3. George Chidi says:

    I have to respectfully disagree here.

    I can accept that the Rialto study isn’t conclusive. But it’s certainly suggestive, and the cause-and-effect is clear enough.

    We do not send police officers out without very expensive guns and very expensive training to use those guns. Nor do we send them, generally, without very-expensive working radios, or handcuffs, or police vehicles.

    The meaningful question is whether a $500 piece of equipment (a figure that almost certainly will fall with volume and time) results in something more than $500 worth of value — lives saved, lawsuits averted, community goodwill, superior prosecution and the reduction of risk from bad policing.

    I think HCL3 has it: the vast majority of bodycam video will show criminal suspects acting the fool. As I’ve been talking with police agencies using body cameras, I’m discovering that the Rialto case may actually understate the exculpatory effects. Accusations of mistreatment tend to evaporate as soon as a complainant is told that there’s video of the encounter, I am told.

    But I also think every large police department in America probably has some problem officers who get over because institutional culture permits it. We have an obligation as stewards of the public trust to make sure these officers remain responsible to civil authority and our standards of justice. This is a tool to do that, and it’s relatively cheap.

  4. George Chidi says:

    My broad concern isn’t about whether we should be equipping police with cameras. We should. It’s cheap and easy. If a community is paying a cop $30,000 a year to sit in a $50,000 car with a $1000 gun, a $2000 computer, a $3000 radio and can’t find $500 to spend on a camera to improve the quality of evidence in an age where everyone in America carries a video camera, then it shouldn’t have a police force.

    No. My concern is whether or not our policies and our attitudes will begin conform to the evidence these cameras provide.

    Cameras are great. But Eric Garner was choked to death by a cop — a violation of long-standing NYPD policy — on camera, without meaningful consequences.

    Will we hold police officers accountable when we find a suspect beaten half to death by cops who, somehow, forgot to turn their bodycameras on? Will policies mandating their use have teeth? Will policies mandating how video is preserved or copied have teeth?

    Will juries stop excusing these events? Will prosecutors present them in the same way they do cases against Joe Citizen? Will the law move cases like this to special prosecutors who are politically disinterested?

    The failure to hold police to account in cases captured on video like the Tamir Rice shooting — in which police violated every reasonable protocol for dealing with a supposedly-armed suspect — isn’t an evidence problem. It’s a social problem.

    • Michael Silver says:

      On Body cameras isn’t all positive.

      Sometimes a video lies. Video only shows a sliver of what is happening and not the full context.

      Videos can get in the way of people moving on and being productive members of society. Do we want arrest videos of us as teenagers available when we are 55 years old and available to future employers, spouses, and the press.

      Another item on their bat-belt is going to physically impact an officers body and ability to do their job.

      Camera’s are not free and always positive.

        • Michael Silver says:

          I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it wasn’t net positive. I wanted to point out some of the pitfalls and costs. I’m a product of the Philadelphia School System so I’m not a good righter.

          I as well think its a net-positive.

          Someday, I like to see the cameras networked into a 9/11 center so that if things go pearshaped there is someone who can relay critical information to arriving backup.

    • chamblee54 says:

      “Eric Garner was choked to death by a cop”
      I have heard that Mr. Garner had a heart attack. This is not the same as being choked to death.
      When I google “Eric Garner Death Certificate” I do not see the document.
      I would like to know what happened. It is technically none of my business. However, given the hysteria surrounding that case, it would be good to know the facts.

      • saltycracker says:

        If I recall when he was resisting they pinned him down and due to his obesity, heart problems and other health issues the compression on his body: lungs, neck, arm caused his death.

        Not a smart tactic for a career petty criminal knowing his own bad condition. He might have croked if they tased him.

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