Study Says Police Body Cameras Have Contributed To Increased Uses Of Deadly Force

from the not-so-fast dept

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a study that claims to show an increase in shootings by police officers is related to the increase in officer-worn body cameras. The heart of the study's [PDF] claims is this:

Our empirical analysis produced several interesting findings. First, we found that in police departments that conduct statistical analyses of digitized crime data, there are 2.15% fewer fatal shootings, substantiating our theoretical prediction that criminal intelligence can prevent police officers from using lethal force. Similarly, the use of smartphones by officers for intelligence access is related to 2.72% fewer deadly shootings. We obtained similar results from the alternative data from and the FBI. Surprisingly, we found that the use of wearable video cameras is associated with a 3.64% increase in shooting-deaths of civilians by the police. We explain that video recordings collected during a violent encounter with a civilian can be used in favor of a police officer as evidence that justifies the shooting.

While I don't doubt that some officers believe footage may assist them in justifying shootings, there's very little here that suggests anything more than a statistical blip. No such increase was noted in 2013 or 2014, and a 3.64% increase would seem to be a fluctuation, rather than anything correlative.

The authors of the study note one issue that may be skewing the numbers slightly upward: there's very little data available to differentiate between justified shootings and unjustified shootings. Without this, it's difficult to draw the conclusion that officers have made conscious or unconscious decisions about the perceived exculpatory value of capturing deadly force incidents on tape. And yet, such a conclusion is being tentatively drawn.

The professors found almost no link between cameras and shooting deaths in 2013 and 2014. The difference between those years and 2015, they surmise: Officers grew more comfortable using the devices in the field. “It could take a while for police officers to realize how helpful evidence from body cameras can be in justifying the use of lethal force,” they write.

Maybe. Maybe not. A lot more data is needed to determine whether this tick upwards indicates a trend or just a mild diversion from the mean. There's lots of anecdotal data out there that suggests body cameras are having zero effect on limiting excessive force simply because many officers treat the devices as optional.

Here are just a few reports involving shooting by police where footage hasn't been recorded.

A Spokane police officer involved in the shooting of a domestic violence suspect last weekend was wearing a body camera but did not have it turned on, according to an initial investigation.


Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan announced Monday morning that two police officers have been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of a Colchester man in September. He said at the announcement that the officers were cleared without any body camera video of the incident.

The body cameras were turned off, he said, because officers didn’t want the cameras’ red recording lights or audible recording beeps to jeopardize their safety.


A Chicago police officer who fatally shot a black man in the back last week was wearing a body camera during the shooting, but the camera was turned off at the time, officials with the city’s police department said Monday.


An Alabama police officer was wearing a body camera that was not turned on when he fatally shot a man who held a “large metal spoon in a threatening manner” as he approached the officer, according to Tuscaloosa County officials.


A New Orleans police officer turned off her body cam before opening fire on a man who had escaped from her a week earlier.

Lisa Lewis shot the man in the forehead during a traffic stop, then shot at him again as he ran away, according to the lawyer of the man who remains hospitalized.

If shootings by police are trending up despite the use of body cameras, it's not the cameras that are at fault. It's the culture. Body cameras have been shown to decrease deployments of excessive force and reduce complaints by citizens, but only when used in conjunction with policies that hold officers accountable for not recording their interactions with the public.

A slight rise in shootings may indicate what the officers suggest: that officers are "getting used" to the cameras -- not as a source of exculpatory recordings, but rather as a nuisance that can be ignored without fear of reprisal. A lack of solid policies and punishments would similarly generate a rise in deployments of excessive or deadly force, no matter what tech is forced on officers under the guise of accountability.

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Filed Under: body cameras, bodycams, police, violence

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  1. icon
    Drew (profile), 15 Aug 2016 @ 9:59pm

    Or they're getting caught more

    Another possibility is that they're simply getting caught more. It could be that 4% of the shootings on file would have simply been unreported were it not for the camera. As other commenters have already said, correlation =/= causation.

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