Police and body worn cameras: a surprising result.

An article published by the New York Times reports on the results of a study concerned with the effects of body worn cameras on police officers. The effects looked at were civilian complaints and use of force.

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An Axon camera worn by officers on duty. Image from Google.

We often see that people behave better, or are more likely to do things that are ‘good’ when there is the illusion of someone watching them (like with the eyes poster that we saw in Thinking Fast and Slow), so this is what we would probably expect to see from police wearing body cameras. The results of the study suggest that wearing body cameras had no statistical significance on police behavior, which is very surprising.

Amanda Ripley, the author of this article, mentions another study from 2012 in Rialto, CA, focused on the effects of “body worn cameras” (BWC’s). This other study showed calming effects from BWC’s, such as a 90 percent decrease in civilian complaints from the previous year. Although these studies had different results, Ripley also mentions differences between the studies: the 2012 study focused on just 54 officers, while the recent study focused on 2200 officers. This difference in size also results in a difference in amount of footage: the recent Washington study has about five times more footage than the earlier Rialto study. The larger sample size and amount of footage adds more reliability to the recent study.

This study has a result that is completely unexpected. We would expect police officers to be less willing to show use of force while being filmed (or with the potential to be filmed), but this doesn’t seem to be the case. Ripley discusses in her article some potential reasons why these results are the way they are.

One hypothesis was that the officers became desensitized to the BWC’s. This is less likely though, because the researchers didn’t see a difference in behavior at the start of the study compared to the end.

Another hypothesis was that “officers without cameras were acting like officers with cameras, simply because they knew other officers had the devices.” If all of the officers were acting the same, with or without cameras, it would make sense that the results would appear the same rather than having a difference with presence of camera.

The third hypothesis that Ripley brings up is fear: officers in Washington DC turn their cameras on when they answer a call or interact with the public as officers. Ripley states: “The kinds of situations that might lead to civilian complaints or use-of-force incidents are high-stress encounters. When frightened, humans tend to act on automatic fear responses (or, in the case of good police officers in an ideal world, training).” So, officers could be having complaints against them and using force due to responding out of fear and reverting back to their initial training.

The final hypothesis is that their might not have been a difference in complaints and use of force because the Washington DC police department has already had to confront excessive use-of-force problems. Since these problems are already being addressed, it might not seem like there’s much of a before and after difference.

Whatever the cause, this study shows that BWC’s aren’t a guaranteed fix to complaints against officers or force used by officers. This is an interesting result to see because we have seen in many other places that being recorded, or even having eyes from a poster on someone usually makes them a “more honest” person (like we saw in Thinking Fast and Slow). If officers aren’t made “more honest” (more likely to abide by the rules, for example) by having their actions recorded, then what does that say about them as people? Would we really want to have them as officers? That’s something that I find concerning, but I’d like to see more into the study, maybe in more areas to see where those results are common to (maybe big cities, cities with violent officer problems, etc.).

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The eyes study from Thinking Fast and Slow.

We also see that even though these results aren’t what the researchers were hoping for, there is some benefit to it: the information gathered from BWC’s can be used in training, as well as holding an officer responsible if any errant behavior is recorded. There’s also the potential that civilians will feel safer with BWC’s on officers. They’ll know that if they feel unsafe with an officer, or have any issues, their concerns are at least recorded.

So, what does all of this mean for us as civilians? Officers wearing cameras doesn’t show a significant difference in civilian complaints, or uses of force, but there is some comfort in knowing that the interaction is being recorded. More research is needed to tell us how the public feels about police officers wearing cameras: if civilians feel safer and more comfortable with officers wearing cameras, then it’s enough of a win to keep with the BWC plan. On the other hand, it’s an expensive process to make all officers record interactions, then store all of that data (the most expensive part), especially if the results of officers wearing BWC’s doesn’t positively impact their behavior and complaints. Either way, more research is needed to fully determine if BWC’s have any impact (whether small increases or small decreases) on officers’ use of force or complaints against officers.

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