Police Camera Study Shows New Tech Having Little Effect On Misconduct And Excessive Force

from the can't-fix-a-broken-culture dept

The results of another police camera study are in and there’s not much good news in them. While cautiously hailed as tools of accountability, body worn cameras so far have proven to be anything but. In the early days of body camera adoption, a study of a pilot program in Rialto, California produced very positive results.

When cops in a Rialto, California were forced to wear cameras, their use of force dropped by over two-thirds. Additionally, the officers who were not made to wear the cameras used force twice as much as those who did. This strongly suggests the majority of the time police use force is unnecessary. In other words, the majority of the time these officers used force they were simply committing acts of violence which they don’t feel comfortable committing if it’s captured on film…

The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. 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.

The study’s length suggested positive long-term results but the small sample size may have skewed the results. Another contributing factor could have been the “newness” of the devices themselves — something that may have led officers to act with more restraint than usual.

But as more and more police departments have deployed body cameras, the results have been less and less positive. A study published last year suggested body worn cameras actually led to an increase in violence — a 3.64% uptick in fatal shootings by officers. Of course, this increase may have been nothing more than a deviation from the mean. But it still pointed towards cameras being anything but a cheap, scalable fix for officer misconduct.

The latest report covers the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department’s body camera pilot program. The data is drawn from 2,000 MPD officers over a period of 18 months. Again, the results suggest body cameras aren’t going to change policing for the better. From the report [PDF] (via the New York Times):

We learned that BWCs do not have detectable average effects on documented uses of force or civilian complaints.

More scientifically:

We are unable to reject the null hypotheses that BWCs have no effect on police use of force, citizen complaints, policing activity, or judicial outcomes. Because our study has a large enough sample size to detect small effect sizes, these failures to reject the null are unlikely to be due to insufficient statistical power, at least for uses of force and complaints. (Our estimates of average effects in the judicial outcomes category occasionally have much wider confidence intervals.) We consider here a few possible explanations for our null findings.

First and most obviously, it is possible the null finding needs no explanation: the devices, in fact, have no effect on the measured behaviors, and the video footage they produce has no effect on judicial outcomes. Perhaps neither the officer nor citizen involved in an interaction are actually aware of the camera, either due to attention being diverted elsewhere or desensitization over time to the presence of the cameras. Alternately, the officer and citizen may notice the cameras, but other factors in the heat of the moment may override any deterrent effect the cameras may have had.

Cameras do not act as a deterrent for police misconduct, according to these findings. There were case-by-case fluctuations, but the end result remained unchanged.

The report doesn’t discuss any outside factors possibly contributing to this lack of deterrence. But there are several reasons police behavior may remain unmodified after the deployment of cameras. Restrictive public records policies can insulate officers from accountability, leading to little or no change in police behavior. Fortunately, the Metro PD’s BWC footage policy does not automatically exempt it from public records laws, although it does tend to discourage complainants from seeking footage of possible misconduct.

A person alleging non-criminal misconduct related to an interaction with an MPD officer, such as rudeness and unprofessionalism on the part of the officer, shall be able to schedule a time to view unredacted BWC footage of the incident at the police station in the police district where the alleged misconduct occurred…

Another possible contributing factor is the lack of meaningful punishments for officers who fail to activate cameras or tamper with recorded footage. This may not have had much of an effect on this study, as officers knew they were being watched by the group performing the study. The report notes no instances of tampering or questionable camera activation were observed during the 18-month pilot period.

But the biggest contributing factor to zero change in officer behavior is police culture itself. The Metro PD has had its problems with misconduct and excessive force. This is from a 2001 DOJ report on the DC police.

Through analysis of a random sample, the DOJ determined that in approximately 15% of the use of force incidents, the force used by MPD officers was excessive, compared to an expected occurrence rate of 1 to 2%. Other DOJ findings included disproportionate incidents of force used by off-duty officers (14% of incidents); subjects being charged with “assault on a police officer” when force was deployed (1/3 of incidents); incidents of a gun not found on the subject, despite officers reporting that subject appeared to be reaching for a weapon (22% of incidents); and excessive incidents of police dog bites (bites occurring in 70% of canine deployments, compared to an expected bite rate of 10%). The DOJ determined that MPD lacked a comprehensive program to minimize the use of excessive force, had an inadequate system for investigating citizen complaints of officer misconduct, and had significant deficiencies in its training program.

Over the past decade, DC Metro Police has paid out $31.6 million in settlements and fielded nearly 175 civil rights lawsuits. And, in general, use of force by MPD officers has remained constant over the same time period, suggesting it takes a bit more to reach the “excessive force” plateau needed to sustain allegations against officers. While the PD has taken a proactive approach to misconduct and excessive force following the 1999 DOJ investigation, follow-up reports show the PD has narrowed its definition of “force” to exclude many forms of force deployment from its mandatory reporting.

If the consequences for misconduct are minimal, officers won’t change their behavior even if they’ve got cameras pinned to their chests. Cameras are only a small part of police accountability. The largest contributor to better behavior by officers is the department itself. If it makes de-escalation and respectful behavior a priority — and follows this up with serious punishments for violations — cameras will be filled with exonerating footage. If not, force deployments and potential misconduct will remain nearly unchanged as officers have little to fear even if the footage they capture shows them violating rights and deploying excessive force.

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Comments on “Police Camera Study Shows New Tech Having Little Effect On Misconduct And Excessive Force”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

As noted in the article the likely culprit is the fact that cameras or no, the police in general lack any willingness to hold their own accountable for their actions. A camera is great for providing solid proof of misconduct, but that only matters if that misconduct is punished, otherwise the damning footage might as well not exist for all that it accomplishes.

Body cams are only going to be as effective at curbing abuse as the police are in punishing it, and since the latter is pretty much non-existent, the former isn’t going to be that high either sadly.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

I was excoriated a week or so ago for saying pretty much the same thing. Look to the supervisors and managers for that punishment.

I don’t believe that other cops should not speak up as well, but they don’t provide the discipline, the bosses do.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

I don’t believe that other cops should not speak up as well, but they don’t provide the discipline, the bosses do.

Both can I’d say. While the supervisors are the only ones that can hand out official punishments, the other officers can make it clear that they do not approve of or will support the actions of someone with a badge abusing their position, whether this be official reports regarding their behavior or ‘simply’ social shunning beyond what is absolutely required in order to perform the job.

(Unfortunately the handful of stories I’ve run across involving such shunning generally involves a good cop trying to fix a problem that they see, and those around them punishing them for it rather than the other way around.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

Look to the supervisors and managers for that punishment.

While it’s a problem that you can’t even fire a cop when you have video of them committing a serious crime, it’s not supervisors and managers who should be dealing with it—it should be the prosecutors who will treat it the same as any assault. (Anyone can claim they were taking an action in self-defense or defense of someone else, but we expect to have some evidence of that.)

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

This bit says it all: “Over the past decade, DC Metro Police has paid out $31.6 million in settlements and fielded nearly 175 civil rights lawsuits”

The thing the corrupt cops and corrupt prosecutors really don’t want slipping into the general public consciousness is that any rights violation you could file a federal 42 USC 1983 lawsuit over and win is also a crime — nearly always a felony — under 18 USC 241 & 242.

Police routinely commit violent federal felonies and even capital crimes, yet face no charges, little in the way of consequences, and are often allowed to resign instead of being charged with those crimes.

Just imagine how you’d be laughed at if you offered to quit your job in exchange for murder charges being dropped.

peter says:

Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

I agree but I think that it is deeper than this.

The police misconduct is not being curbed even when video’d because they believe they are doing nothing wrong. They have been brought up for so long in a culture that ‘the police can do no wrong’ that they start believing that there is nothing about their behaviour that needs curbing or changing.

And that is before they get to the thinking that even if they do something wrong, someone will cover their backs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Video not acted upon is indistinguishable from video that doesn't exit

As long as UNIONS are around protecting them and the freeken BLUE LINE which mans officers will stand there watching while the corrupt one continues to do what he or she does. Which in effect makes them all BAD.

So long as Camera’s can be turned On and off at will and somehow all 8 camera’s from the officers of a shooting somehow don’t work and you can’t see anything from them making them in effect worthless. Nothing will change.

Your BEST option is to make sure you have a DASHCAM in your car always working!!! Pull out your Camera and record what is going on. The police can’t stop you from recording them. It’s a Constitutional Protected Act no matter what the F they tell you!!! If they arrest you over recording them, SUE them later. Stand your group and protect your rights. The Police do nothing buy LIE. They’re lie, they’ll do whatever they can to get you to talk and say something they can use against you.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think it requires going even higher up the food chain. Laws that given them get-out-jail-free cards like the giant “reasonable fear for their safety” loophole need to be changed. Prosecutors who aren’t beholden to the police for help with their other cases should be the ones to handle police misconduct cases, maybe even create state-wide prosecutors units dedicated just to those cases.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The laws you refer to are the ones that allow any citizen to make an affirmative defense plea of self defense when prosecuted for assault, battery or murder.

Police use that phrase, ‘I feared for my life’ because that is the criteria that determines whether a use of deadly force in self defense was justified or not.

The problem here is not that citizens should be prohibited from defending themselves, the problem is that due to corrupt prosecutors, the mandatory next step after making a claim of having feared for your life, convincing a jury that your fear was reasonable, seldom happens. When it does, juries of citizens who have grown up having the idea drummed into them that police are exempt from obeying the law will usually acquit those officers even if their fears were not in fact reasonable.

This prosecutorial corruption and jury ignorance is also why people who do successfully defend themselves from corrupt police using deadly force are always charged with first degree murder — actual or attempted — and juries nearly always convict them, despite the fact that there was no premeditation. Because self defense pleas are not allowed when charged with first degree murder, and the fact of the killing is usually indisputable.

Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Gravatar?

What gravatars? No one who has commented on this thread so far has a gravatar on their post.

The site allows you to upload a small image if you register an account here, and anonymous people get assigned a randomly chosen image (also not a gravatar) linked to them by IP address, so subsequent replies on the same thread are attributed to people properly.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Gravatar?

and anonymous people get assigned a randomly chosen image (also not a gravatar) linked to them by IP address, so subsequent replies on the same thread are attributed to people properly.

Which also doubles as a source of unintentional humor when you have ‘multiple’ people posting from the same IP address who don’t realize this fact.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Gravatar?

They do provide some association of the same people (IP address, technically) on a 24-hour basis. Within 24 hours of commenting, I see the same Anonymous Coward icon, and it changes the next day.

Not sure if it’s avoidable, but if you’re worried about images/ids identifying what you’re doing per day on a site like this, maybe it’s a better idea not to post anything.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Gravatar?

An external log capturing the originators IP address, (hello NSA), does the same as the gravatar, and is more easily searched. It also tracks visitors to the site, so the only ways to avoid association with sites is to use TOR or a VPN, and mix your traffic with other peoples traffic, not perfect, but requires more work to tie back to a person. Alternatively, and safest is not to use the Internet at all.

It is also worth noting that with pervasive spying, most of the data collected is never looked at, but comes in useful to figure out what happened after an incident, or if a government agency takes a dislike to a person.

The old USSR could not stop its dissidents from communicating, and even circulating paper copies of banned books, and China is not having the success it desires monitoring the Internet, and controlling access through its great firewall.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: BWC study asks the wrong question.


Maybe in most cases, the use of force is justified.

Who says the “expected use of force” should be 1 to 2 percent? Is that valid? Is it based in facts and reality?

Maybe the abnormal cases of people being wrongfully killed or force used on them is wrong is exactly that, abnormal, with most cases being appropriate.


Re: Re: BWC study asks the wrong question.

The vast majority of bodycam footage is tedious and mundane. It doesn’t paint the same picture of cops that everyone else here seems to by into.

A man bites a dog in Tibet. It gets posted on (social) media and everyone thinks it’s an epidemic and one of their kids is going to start biting dogs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Nerd harder

People just need to nerd harder that’s all, never mind attempting to apply a technical solution to a sociological problem isn’t going to work.

The cops here in TO are rolling out there bodycam pilot but what interests me is what the police culture difference will show, Toronto cops are no angels(there is plenty of corruption, intimidation and beatings) to be sure but I don’t think they have killed more than 10 people in my LIFETIME, and there was at least one incident(in the 80’s) that was a full on gun battle at a surrounded motel in which no one was killed and all of the suspects where arrested alive.

But then again it seems we don’t train our cops to be soldiers,the problem in the US is a cultural one that I think comes from the same place going postal does, preferentially hiring veterans for high stress and high responsibility jobs is just very poor judgment and leads to a violent authoritarian culture.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Nerd harder

I don’t think it’s correct to frame it as a pure problem of racism, that’s a preferential factor(as race is an indicator of social status and wealth) the real issue is authoritarianism and giving people grotesque amounts of power without any real test that they are competent or capable of carrying out those DUTIES and RESPONSIBILITIES, there is far to much presumption of competence and goodness in society in general and cops doubly so, it’s simple submission to authority, fear, fear of this battle station will keep them in line may as well be the moto of the every government conglomerate on earth, it’s counter productive, anti-social and psychopathic. well there’s your problem…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Nerd harder

Yes yo start with authority and proceed from there, racism is a function of capitalism, south Africa is an excellent and very obvious demonstration of this, even here in TO where there has never been slavery black people are more likely to be jacked up, beaten and even shot, but this is due to poor status, skin colour is the obvious marker, not the core reason if you see the differentiation I am making, in other words black people are assumed to be poor and therefore violent so the cops react to that, the higher rates are due to obviousness of there lack of character, look it’s dumb but racism is designed so that people not think about it but it is an a weapon of class warfare

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