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.