In 2012 a police body camera experiment took place in Rialto, California. Police officers were randomly assigned body cameras based on their shifts over a 12 month period.
As it turned out, the shifts assigned cameras had half as many use-of-force incidents as shifts without body cameras, and the number of complaints filed by civilians against police officers declined by 90 percent when compared to the previous year.
The results suggested police body cameras modified police behavior, or, as one reporter stated, the technology had a “civilizing effect.”
In 2013 the “civilizing effect” of the Rialto results encouraged a federal judge to order the New York City Police Department to conduct a pilot program using body cameras. There were 927 New York police officers assigned body cameras and their performance was compared to police officers without them. These results are due in the spring of 2018.
In 2016 a Huffington Post headline said: “Body cameras benefit police, too, study shows.” The headline implied that this study, published in the journal of Criminal Justice and Behavior, discovered an additional benefit to police departments that wasn’t detected by previous studies.
This study consisted of seven police departments. Researchers tracked the number of complaints filed against roughly 2,000 police officers in the year before they were issued body cameras, then compared them to the number of complaints filed the year after the body cameras were worn. As it turned out, complaints dropped for all seven departments. The year before the body cameras were issued there were 1,539 complaints, and the year after the cameras were used the complaints dropped to 113.
The study also stated researchers recorded a decrease in complaints filed against police officers in the same department that weren’t wearing body cameras at all. The researchers called this additional benefit to the police “contagious accountability.”
Now, researchers often make names for themselves by coining phrases, but “contagious accountability” sounds like a scientific stretch to promote the “civilizing effect” of body cameras. It’s also important to point out that the seven police departments used in this experiment were in the United States and the United Kingdom. (When racial studies want to inflate disparities they combined Black and Latino, same principle here.) And, going back to the Rialto experiment, the 90 percent decline in complaints resulted from a study of only 54 police officers.
Was the Rialto sample large enough to assume body cameras would modify police behavior?
Recently, the New York Times reported on a new 18-month-long study of over 2,000 police officers in Washington D.C. and found body cameras had little effect. Police officers equipped with body cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as their colleagues without cameras. Washington’s police chief was surprised. He thought the body cameras would have made a difference in police and civilian behavior.
The authors of the study said the results show we have to “recalibrate” our expectations for body cameras to have “large-scale” behavioral change in policing. Other researchers questioned whether police departments should even use body-cameras given their high cost. (The federal government gave police departments $40 million for body cameras and state and local governments authorized millions more.)
But the most interesting comment came from a University of South Carolina law professor. He said, “Police departments have been rushing to use body cameras without sufficiently deciding what the goal is. When no one is sure what it is suppose to do, no one knows if it is working.”
But the only thing that needs to work is the camera, not for “civilizing effect” or “contagious accountability”, but to capture footage and provide an unbiased witness for the defense and the prosecution.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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