Nobody likes someone watching over their shoulder when they do their job. So it is understandable for police officers to have a knee jerk reaction of finding body cameras strapped to them to be offensive. The reality of police citizen interactions is that they occur when emotions are raw and possibly explosive: during a car accident, during an argument with a spouse or neighbor or suspected criminal activity. So why should have another headache with a camera strapped to them? A partial answer occurs if it is recalled that society has given police officers the power of life and death by having guns strapped to their hips.
This unique aspect of an officer’s job promotes an atmosphere subject to public scrutiny and in some cases, civil action. It is increasingly common for private citizens to take legal action against law enforcement agencies. Civil suits against officers lone have increased dramatically since 1960. Archbold, C. A., & Maguire, E. R., Studying civil suits against the police: A serendipitous finding of sample selection bias, Police Quarterly, 5(2), 222-249 (2002). If there is a way to reduce the time and energy devoted to such lawsuits by providing a more accurate account of what has transpired, and to ensure that citizens and officers are not being targeted with false accusations, video evidence is becoming increasingly useful.
Initially, however, it should be noted that officers are dissatisfied with body cameras due to long down load times, increased amount of time that it took to complete reports, and the possibility that video recordings might be used against them by the department. Katz, et al., Evaluating the Impact of Officer Worn Body Cameras in the Phoenix Police Department, Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety, Arizona State University (December 2014) 3.
Those are absolutely legitimate concerns. However, those negatives do not outweigh the positive reasons to have officers with body cameras. For instance, the number of arrests increased by about 17% among the target group compared to 9% in the comparison group. Second, complaints against the police declined significantly. Complaints against officers who wore the cameras declined by 23%, compared to a 10.6% increase among comparison officers and 45.1% increase among patrol officers in other precincts. Third, the data showed that those officers who wore cameras and received a complaint were significantly less likely to have the complaint sustained when compared to the comparison group and other patrol officers. Id. This position was endorsed by Judge Scheindlin when she ordered NYPD to begin using video camera technology. She wrote that cameras: “Will provide a contemporaneous, objective record of stop and-frisks allowing for the review of officer conduct… [that] may either confirm or refute the belief of some minorities that they have been stopped simply as a result of their race… Thus, the recording should also alleviate some of the mistrust that has developed between the police and the black and Hispanic communities, based on the belief that stops and frisks are overwhelmingly and unjustifiably directed at members of these communities.” Floyd et al. v. City of New York, Case 1:08- cv-01034-SAS-HBP, p. 26-27, https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/assets/Floyd-Remedy-Opinion-8-12-13.pdf. The process of building legitimacy through fair and reliable procedures like body cameras is a cornerstone of police work because it ensures support from the public and increases compliance. In fact, increasing the quality of citizen contacts will lead to a reduction of crime by itself. Lawrence W. Sherman, Ed., Policing for prevention, In Preventing crime: What works, what doesn’t, what’s promising—A report to the attorney general of the United States (United States Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. 1997).
This position is supported by empirical evidence. A September 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology used a controlled experiment with the Mesa Police Department in Arizona to determine how body cameras influence police-citizen interactions. For the report, entitled “The Impact of On-officer Video Cameras on Police-Citizen Contacts: Findings from a Controlled Experiment in Mesa, AZ,” http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11292-015-9237-8, Justin Ready and Jacob Young of Arizona State University analyzed 3,698 field reports completed by 100 sworn patrol officers. The officers — half were assigned to wear body cameras — filled out the reports after having contact with members of the public between Nov. 1, 2012 and Oct. 1, 2013. Key findings from that study indicate:
- Officers who did not wear body cameras conducted more “stop-and-frisks” and made more arrests than officers who wore the video cameras. Officers who did not wear cameras performed 9.8% more stop-and-frisks and made 6.9% more arrests.
- Officers assigned to wear cameras issued 23.1% more citations for ordinance violations than those who did not wear cameras.
- Officers with body cameras initiated 13.5% more interactions with citizens than those who did not wear them.
- Officers wearing cameras were 25.2% more likely to perceive the devices as being helpful during their interactions with the public.
- The cameras did not have a significant impact on whether or not officers gave verbal warnings to citizens.
The study indicates that police officers were more cautious and risk averse when wearing body cameras. The authors suggest that the reason that camera-wearing officers may have made fewer arrests and conducted fewer stop-and-frisks was because they thought more carefully about criminal policy and procedures. With video evidence, there is the potential for greater scrutiny by supervisors or members of the public. The researchers note that a possible reason why officers with cameras wrote more citations was because they were worried they might be reprimanded for not issuing tickets when video evidence showed that a citizen had violated an ordinance or traffic law. Ready and Young’s work offers insights that they think will be useful to law enforcement agencies as they decide whether to use this technology. “Police executives may support new technology that brings greater accountability and less civil liability, but line officers focus on how it may limit their use of discretion in the field,” the authors state. “Empirical support showing that OVCs [On-officer Video Cameras] can help departments achieve their goals will reduce the time needed for this technology to gain legitimacy. Our findings represent a preliminary step in that direction.”