Police Body Cameras: It's Not The Footage, It's The Deterrent

from the can't-fix-everything,-doesn't-mean-we-shouldn't-try dept

Body cameras for police officers: the cure-all that isn’t. While obtaining additional footage (and in some cases, any footage) of officer-involved incidents is a step forward, there are still too many inherent flaws in the system to consider it a complete fix for misconduct and abuse. For one, cameras are only as reliable as their operators, and the police will still control the “RECORD” button in most cases.

There are also issues with what they actually capture. A first-person perspective may not be the most helpful and the rolling 30-second buffers that don’t capture audio (put in at the insistence of police unions) may cause some headaches in the future. That being said, it is a huge step forward from what has been deemed acceptable for years now: the incident report, a purely subjective recounting of an event, often by an unreliable narrator.

The successes seen by the Rialto, California police department trial program point to the real benefit of using body cameras. It’s not that questionable incidents were caught on tape and reviewed. It’s that fewer questionable incidents occurred.

Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

Ethan Bernstein at Harvard Business Review has more details from that trial.

In that study, incidents occurring during shifts without cameras were twice as likely to result in the use of force. Indeed, when officers wore cameras, every physical contact was initiated by a member of the public, while 24% of physical contact was initiated by officers when they weren’t wearing the cameras.

Being observed results in better behavior. In this way, the police aren’t so different from the public.

You’ll see similar results — with an interesting twist — in a study by Washington University’s Lamar Pierce and his coauthors, who looked at employee behavior at almost 400 U.S. restaurants. Bodycams reduced restaurant employee theft by 22%, or about $24 per week. (The effect grew over time, with theft dropping $7 a week the first month and $48 a week by the third month.) But the cameras actually had a much larger impact on productivity and sales: On average, total check revenue increased by 7% ($2,975 per week), and total drink revenue by 10.5% ($927 per week). Tips went up, too, by 0.3%.

There are, of course, downsides to constant observation. Bernstein notes that some people faced with this — especially if their employment is highly dependent on their observed performance — tend to focus on small details rather than the overall picture. They expend more energy engaged in tedium, rather than improving. He suggests a few adjustments that might result in fewer officers (or employees) succumbing to the desire to perform in an automaton-like fashion, rather than in a way that benefits both them and the people around them.

If too much transparency kills innovative behavior, how can police departments improve officers’ track record on profiling without sacrificing the kind of educated risk-taking and problem solving that’s often needed to save lives?

I would argue that the answer lies in focusing on developing good judgment and supporting justice, rather than on enforcing police protocol. Police in Ferguson and elsewhere can learn from companies that use cameras for coaching and development instead of evaluation and punishment.

This is a very difficult balance to achieve in a law enforcement setting. The potential harm caused by rogue police behavior can be almost incalculable. Relaxing accountability and relying on cameras to deter bad behavior won’t accomplish anything with those determined to game the system. Police misconduct should still be treated seriously and have serious repercussions. (This area definitely needs to be improved, cameras or no cameras.)

But there are officers who just have a few rough edges to polish off in order to make them positive additions to the force. Using body cameras solely as a lead-in for punitive measures will either push these on-the-edge cops to do their own on-the-fly film editing or turn them into officers who prefer the rote comfort of reports and clockwork patrol routes, rather than actively engaging with the community in a positive fashion. Neither outcome is desirable.

These issues aside, there’s really very little reason to oppose the use of body cameras. An additional account of incidents, as well as the inherent deterrent effect, have too much potential benefit to be ignored. A new level of transparency and accountability is owed to the public after years and years of public servants operating under an unwritten code of silence and obfuscation. If law enforcement agencies are at all concerned about their officers’ behavior, this option isn’t one they can afford to ignore.

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Comments on “Police Body Cameras: It's Not The Footage, It's The Deterrent”

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28 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

It’s probably next to worthless to compare the pros and cons of video cameras in civilian work places compared to police forces. In the work place, cameras affect theft and productivity, while with police, it’s all about saving lives, as any cop is likely to think twice before shooting someone, knowing that the video will be shown to the jury at his murder trial, perhaps seriously calling into question his claim of self defense.

Paraquat (profile) says:

Cams should be required

Dashcams should be required in all police cars, on the cop’s body, and especially on their tasers.

If a cop disables a cam, that should be grounds for instant termination of their employment. If a person is arrested and the video and/or audio was somehow “lost” or deleted, then the charges against that individual should be automatically dismissed.

Only if this happens can we keep the police state at bay.

Will these cams cost too much? Funny, that question never gets asked when the US government hands out tanks and machine guns to small town cops. How many cams can you buy for the cost of a tank?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Cams should be required

Why only on their tasers? Put cams on their conventional guns too, set to record all the time the gun’s outside its holster. Every time the user draws the gun, it starts recording, and only stops when it’s holstered again.

Heck, with the right bending of words you could justify recording audio on the guncams too (something like “when the situation calls for a gun, there’s no excuse for privacy anymore”).

Anonymous Coward says:

Ferguson PD isn't using them

Police in Ferguson and elsewhere can learn from companies that use cameras for coaching and development instead of evaluation and punishment.

According to MANY eyewitness reports on site, the cameras aren’t being worn/aren’t being switched on. They’re also still not wearing their nametags, in defiance of the US DOJ directive that they do so.

What police in Ferguson have learned is that they can get away with anything — shooting, beating, threats, lying, intimidation, false arrest, etc. — as long as they can keep it off video and keep from being identified.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Ferguson PD isn't using them

“They’re also still not wearing their nametags, in defiance of the US DOJ directive that they do so.”

It’s probably part of the militarization trend of police. Soldiers stationed in POW prisons such as Guantanamo don’t even wear name tags. The age-old custom of sewn-in nametags on military uniforms has in recent years given way to pull-off Velcro nametags. Police are just following suit, wearing their nametags only when it suits them.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Ferguson PD isn't using them

They’re also still not wearing their nametags, in defiance of the US DOJ directive that they do so.

Quick way to fix that: Make it so if the name and/or badge number isn’t clearly visible(using a standard of say ‘A person with normal eyesight can read the name/number from at least 5-10 feet away in decent lighting’), they do not possess any official authority, and have no more rights than any other random citizen. No power to arrest someone, charge them with a crime, order them to do anything, confiscate/steal their phones, nothing that a regular citizen couldn’t do as well.

The name/number patch also must be permanently affixed to the uniform, if it’s just a velcro patch that they can take off and put on at will, it doesn’t count as being there at all.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Ferguson PD isn't using them

in defiance of the US DOJ directive that they do so.

Theoretically the DOJ, but given this…

‘…in defiance of the US DOJ directive that they do so.

In practice, no-one. When the DOJ, who is supposed to deal with just that sort of situation instead ignore it, then, unfortunately, any proposed ‘fixes’ are useless, because even if it’s in the law, if no-one is enforcing it, and punishing those who violate it, then for all intents and purposes the law doesn’t exist.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Ferguson PD isn't using them

But fewer and fewer cops even wear proper uniforms anymore. Their (civilian-style) shirt or jacket might just say “POLICE” in big letters on the back (often nothing on the front) and don’t expect to see name tags or badges on SWAT cops in full military combat gear.

Come to think about it, about the only people to still dress as police are private security guards, and even they’ve been “going casual” more and more, presumably trying to keep up with the constantly devolving fashions of police who no longer look like police.

Anonymous Coward says:

He suggests a few adjustments that might result in fewer officers (or employees) succumbing to the desire to perform in an automaton-like fashion,

Why? It sounds like an improvement to me. Automatons don’t call people animals and impale them with barrages of “non-lethal” wooden spikes. Automatons don’t gun down unarmed men and launch gas grenades at peaceful protesters.
With the current state of law enforcement, “mindless machine” would be a major upgrade.

Lurker Keith says:

GCPD is not the example real police should be following

Why are real police using Gotham City as THE example police force? The entire point was that the GCPD & politicians were so corrupt, that a borderline-insane man who dressed as a bat w/ a bunch of non-lethal high-tech toys could do their job better on his own (or w/ a child sidekick at times).

Granted, it’s a better role model than the Raccoon City PD, whose corruption got their city killed off then nuked (the order of that could be disputed), but not by much.

Peter Schiff says:

Inaccurate and misleading

“without sacrificing the kind of educated risk-taking and problem solving that’s often needed to save lives” is COMPLETELY FALSE. By law Police are not required to protect or save anyone, ONLY to protect themselves and uphold the law.

When you put control of the camera’s in the hands of police who know they can’t control their behavior, this will never work.

Plus in fact we should require cameras on EVERY important government official (during their work hours) that interacts with the public. Yes the Mayor, Governor, Police Chief, etc… for the most part 99% of their days should be fully disclosed and made available to the public.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

This is not a step forward

Given the police control the footage.

We’re seeing a temporary improvement in attitude, but that’s because officers haven’t yet adapted to the new technology. When they figure out how to make sure footage gets “lost” when convenient, things will return to normal.

By normal, I mean the beatings and shootings will resume.

ProPo says:

I wonder if the the dramatic drop in LE initiating physical contact is going to have a corresponding raise in officer injury.

One of the worst things you could do in terms of your own safety and your ability to go home at the end of your shift, is hesitating to use force when force is justified and needed. It simply doesn’t make sense that physical contact initiated by the officers dropped to ZERO with the use of cameras

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

OTOH, one of the (if not the) worst things you can do as a LEO is to use force when it isn’t called for. It’s preferable that cops hesitate than that cops use unnecessary force.

“It simply doesn’t make sense that physical contact initiated by the officers dropped to ZERO with the use of cameras”

What doesn’t make sense about it? This was the figure from a small field trial, so there’s not a lot of data points there. It’s far from inconceivable that in such a small sample, there was never an actual need for cops to initiate physical contact.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Justified force

So how often is justified force required? Violent crime is way down since the era of buddy-cop movies and crime thrillers and Miami Vice, largely thanks to unleaded gasoline, it seems.

I suspect that cause to draw a weapon is very rare, as is the rampaging PCP case. Police can have their way with drunk-and-disorderly without tasers, generally.

Being a cop is amazingly not dangerous, statistically. And yet they are willfully obfuscating those statistics regarding being around cops.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Justified force

“Being a cop is amazingly not dangerous, statistically.”

I have seen no statistics that support this assertion. From what I’ve seen, being a cop isn’t even in the top 10. According to the BLS (as of 2011), the top 10 (and death rate per 100,000) is:

Fisherman, 127.3
Logger, 104
Aircraft Pilot/Flight Engineer: 56.1
Garbage Collector: 36.4
Roofer: 34.1
Iron/Steel worker: 30.3
Construction helper: 26.8
Farmer/Rancher: 26.1
Truck Driver: 25.9
Miner: 22.1

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