Most of us act a certain better way when we know others are watching. We especially are cautious if there’s a camera capturing our every move. Well, so the theory goes anyway. That argument doesn’t seem to carry over to the police department though.
Body cameras are supposed to not only catch police abuses of power but deter them: officers will be on their best behavior knowing that they could be hauled in. But that isn’t what a new significant research has uncovered.
A new study, sponsored by the city’s The Lab @ DC, and conducted by scientists reviewed police interactions of over a thousand officers who wore cameras, and over a thousand officers who did not.
They compared the number of citations for disorderly conduct those officers administered, the number of complaints made about those officers, and the number of times they used force on someone.
There wasn’t much of a difference between those wearing a camera and those that did not. Leading some to a conclusion that the equipment was a waste of money.
While there were actually 74 more uses of force per 1,000 officers when body cams were present, that’s roughly consistent with a typical range of differences when the equipment comes into play. The changes could just easily be pinned on variances in crime rates, in other words.
“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.,” researchers concluded.
According to The New York Times, the impact of body-worn cameras in D.C. may have been less because its police department has already had to confront excessive-force problems.
In 1998, The Washington Post wrote a series of articles detailing the deadly force used by police in the city. After the article series was published, the Department of Justice entered into an agreement with D.C. to reform its police, The New York Times reported.
In a 2012 study in Rialto, California, researchers found that using force by police was twice as likely when no cameras were involved.
Even if cameras do not reduce violent encounters, they can still offer other kinds of benefits: for training, or to hold a rogue officer accountable after the fact.