Good Thinking

Complaints against police plummet in presence of body cams, says new study

A new research study weighs in on the contentious issue of police body cams
A new research study weighs in on the contentious issue of police body cams
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A new research study weighs in on the contentious issue of police body cams
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A new research study weighs in on the contentious issue of police body cams
The research project, which the University of Cambridge calls one of the largest randomized-controlled experiments in the history of criminal justice research, found that when police officers wore body cameras, complaints against them went down by an astounding 93 percent
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The research project, which the University of Cambridge calls one of the largest randomized-controlled experiments in the history of criminal justice research, found that when police officers wore body cameras, complaints against them went down by an astounding 93 percent

A recent spate of violence between police officers and citizens in the United States has raised many questions about what happens when an organization meant to protect its populace harms it instead. As with so many quandaries these days, technology is often at the center of the debate – namely, regarding the use of body-mounted cameras and the public release of the footage they capture. While body cams can often prove police misconduct, they can also exonerate officers who act appropriately given difficult situations. The simple tech can also, apparently, reduce complaints against cops, as shown in a recent University of Cambridge study.

The research project, which Cambridge calls one of the largest randomized-controlled experiments in the history of criminal justice research, found that when police officers wore body cameras, complaints against them went down by an astounding 93 percent. The study, called "Contagious Responsibility" has been published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior.

The study followed officers in five police stations across the UK (Northern Ireland, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire), and two in the US (Rialto and Ventura, California). That encompassed 1,429,868 officer hours across 4,264 shifts covering a total population of about 2,000,000 citizens. The results showed a drop in complaints from 1,539 in the year preceding the trial – an average of 1.2 complaints per officer – to 113 complaints during the study, which averages out at .08 complaints per officer.

The research project followed on from a study done in 2012 that focused on the Rialto precinct, which showed that use-of-force by officers with body cams fell by 59 percent and complaints dipped by 87 percent versus the prior year.

"We have footage by mobile phone, or partial cameras of people walking by, and they only capture the story from when they turned on the cameras," said Barak Ariel from Cambridge's Institute of Criminology in a video released by the university (see below). "People don't walk around with their cameras on. But the body-worn video introduces a way to show the evidence not just from the officer's perspective, but from the very beginning of the story."

The research project, which the University of Cambridge calls one of the largest randomized-controlled experiments in the history of criminal justice research, found that when police officers wore body cameras, complaints against them went down by an astounding 93 percent
The research project, which the University of Cambridge calls one of the largest randomized-controlled experiments in the history of criminal justice research, found that when police officers wore body cameras, complaints against them went down by an astounding 93 percent

Interestingly, two other studies earlier this year (1, 2) showed that when police officers were in control of switching on and off the cameras themselves, their use-of-force actually climbed, so having continuously running video might be key to the success of the technology.

Doing so comes with its own challenge, however.

"It's very important to distinguish between two elements," said Ariel. "One is the capacity to record, and the other is the capacity to store. It's critically important to distinguish between the two, because that has implications on human rights. In many ways, you can and should record everything. But what you save, what you keep as evidence, is a distinctly different question."

While the investigators stress that more research is needed to tease out the complicated subject of body cameras, the police force in West Yorkshire – which Ariel says is the largest site to experiment with the technology – has seen a clear benefit.

"Anecdotally, in terms of bringing offenders to justice, our Crown Prosecution Service have said to us on numerous occasions, that the video footage has tipped the balance in favor of prosecution, whereas without it, they may not have been able to prosecute," said Jayne Sykes, the West Yorkshire Police Department's head of performance review. "And also, again anecdotally, we're getting more early guilty pleas from suspects which saves the victim the trauma of having to go to court and give evidence."

Another benefit of wearing the cameras is cost, according to Ariel, who says that the initial Rialto study showed that for every dollar spent, you save about US$4 on complaint litigation. As the cost of cameras continues to fall, the cost-to-value ratio should improve even more from there he adds.

The Cambridge University video below details the results of the study along with showing some pretty dramatic body-camera footage.

Source: Cambridge University/YouTube

Body-worn video - The independent witness

13 comments
guzmanchinky
And why don't we have a better less than lethal gun yet? It's 2016, not 1916.
VincentWolf
Perhaps what they need is gun cameras. In other words make a tiny camera that fits on the barrel of a gun like a laser sight and anytime the gun is pulled from their holster it begins taking video of whatever it's aiming at with a very wide angle lens.
John Hogan
This was way overdue. OK, it represents a reduction in the trust placed in all concerned and that is a bad, sad change in society. But the cameras benefit everyone enough that they must be used in more situations. I've got a fair bit of experience working with people with a cluster of behaviours I call LAMP - lying, accusation, manipulation, paranoia. I've long wished for a continuous recording of what is happening especially in a one on one situation. Ironically, the hidden recordings made by such people have assisted me several times when they were seeking to entrap or accuse me. I have often wished to have a camera on me permanently. More recently I've defused several situations by recording via my phone and making a show of doing it. More generally, this is going to explode as a technique but I am certain that serious thought must go into how this will change society and how we should manage that. In the absence of sensible people making sensible decisions, things will quickly get silly, bring Orwell's vision closer as our rights are diminished.
zr2s10
The benefit is likely from both sides. An officer is less likely to go too far if he knows his actions can be seen, even if they're not a bad person. It's a stressful job, and I'm sure that in the heat of the moment, they can get carried away. The camera is a reminder to restrain themselves. And the public is more likely to behave in interactions with an officer, if they know that they can't lie also. They can't claim to be a victim if video of them being belligerent/combative is going to end up in court or on the evening news. It's probably also lowering the "filed" complaints more than "verbal" complaints. Someone may be sitting in interrogations, claiming brutality. Before cameras, a complaint would have to be filed regardless of the truth. Now, the police can say, "Oh really? Because here's the video of what went on.", and then the perp just shuts up and no paperwork gets filed. As far as when to save video, they should have a form for people to fill out anytime there is someone involved. Basically, ask people if they want their video saved or not. Of course, anytime there is a physical altercation, it should be saved regardless. Guzmanchinky, the cops do have a less than lethal option, the Taser. Unfortunately, it does nothing against some criminals, due to either size or drugs. And it's not a perfect solution either. Sometimes they have to taze someone that's high as a kite, or is huge and therefore may have a weak heart. They end up dying, even though the officer was trying to save their life, and the y get sued anyway.
npublici
Cameras produce a change in police behavior and civilian behavior.When either cross the line of acceptable behavior it is better documented.I don't believe police should individually be able to turn them off. That should be centrally controlled.
habakak
Is the drop in complaints because cops were less violent causing less cases for the public to complaint about, or is it because lying assholes could not get away with their bull? That would be the interesting thing to see. The study pointing out that when cops have the ability to turn cameras off it leads to more use of force, makes me think that a big part in the drop of complains when they can't control this, is due to them putting their best foot forward when not being monitored. Power corrupts. Why should police have the option to turn cameras off? It's not there just for THEIR protection. It's there to protect the public too. There is fault on both sides, and it's better to have more info/data in most cases to try and clear up misunderstandings, lies and corruption. Off course cameras would not help if it involves arresting Donald Trump. Because even if caught on camera doing or saying something, he apparently did not when confronted about it and shown video proof.
ezeflyer
Can they make these body cameras tiny, shock resistant and unobtrusive for children to wear to prevent child abuse?
Wolf0579
A more accurate headline would have been "Police misconduct and extra-judicial murders plummet when body cameras are worn."
Kpar
Some pretty thoughtful comments, here. Chicken or egg? Does the presence of cameras reduce the bad behavior of police or does it reduce the false claims of abuse of authority? Yes. The introduction of dashcams a few years ago on Illinois State Police squads led to some interesting results- I saw a video released by the ISP after one of their troopers was accused of roughing up a motorist during a traffic stop. The video showed the cop as being very solicitous and concerned about the well being of the driver (a black man) in question. Once the video was released, the lawsuit was withdrawn without comment. Win-win!
Dan Lewis
I found it sadly telling of a system of enforcement in need of major change. I found it sad how the lead-in told us of a massive drop...but never clearly explained what caused that drop. Phooey.
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