Public Safety

Research finds police body-worn cameras fall short of expectations

Cedar Rapids Police Officer Randy Vest shows his body camera at the station in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Police Officer Randy Vest shows his body camera at the station in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, May 16, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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For years, body worn cameras were lauded as the solution to strengthening police accountability and improving transparency, while serving as a tool to repair fractured relationships between law enforcement and certain communities.

Following the deaths of Michael Brown — an unarmed black man who was fatally shot in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — and Freddie Gray — a black man who died while in the custody of Baltimore (Maryland) police — the country erupted in calls for police accountability and body cameras were quickly adopted as the solution.

“I can tell you from the ACLU’s position that we believed police body cameras, when used appropriately, would allow the public to monitor the government,” said ACLU Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer. “And that would give us a chance to record police and civilian encounters in a way that could promote police accountability, deter officer and civilian misconduct and provide objective evidence to help resolve civilian complaints against police without significantly infringing on privacy.”

But, according to a recently released study from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, body cameras may not be the panacea the nation had hoped.

According to the report, researchers reviewed 70 empirical studies on body cameras’ effects, ranging in focus from their influence on officer and citizen behavior to influences on law enforcement agencies as a whole. While much of the research is mixed, its conclusion counters some of the benefits body cameras were expected to bring at a time when more and more departments are investing in the technology.

“Researchers have consistently found that police technology may not lead to the outcomes sought, and often it has unintended consequences for police officers, their organizations and citizens,” the report states. “The reason for this is that technology is often filtered through — and shaped by — human factors (such as the reaction to and the employment of said technology), as well as through an agency’s organization, procedural and cultural ways.”

Use of Force

One of the main factors in the push for body cameras was the belief the technology could potentially limit officers’ use of force. And, in six of the studies researchers reviewed, it was indicated that officers wearing body cameras were less likely to use force.

For Cedar Rapids officers, Police Chief Wayne Jerman said an officer’s decision that force is necessary has nothing to do with whether that officer is wearing a camera. The decision, he said, is based on their training.

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“Use of force statistics can vary from month-to-month depending upon what type of calls that officers are dispatched to,” he said in a statement. “Force that an officer is required to use is a response to the resistance of an individual who doesn’t comply with a lawful order or arrest. Therefore, there may be no correlation between body cameras and use of force. Whether an officer has a body camera is not a factor in any officer training on appropriate use of force.”

That said, another eight studies found the cameras had no statistically significant differences in the use of force by officers wearing body cameras versus those that were not.

One study did offer speculation regarding the inconsistency: “They discovered that when officers have more discretion on their cameras, they tend to exhibit greater uses of force than officers who have less discretion regarding their BWCs,” the report stated.

In other words, the less freedom officers have in the decision of when to turn on the cameras, the less likely they might be to use force, depending on their department’s activation policies.

Fewer Complaints

One impact body worn cameras did seem to have, according to the report, was a decline in citizen complaints against officers.

In a number of studies, the report states, “researchers have mostly found that officers wearing body worn cameras received fewer reported complaints that do those that are not wearing cameras.”

It is unclear why the cameras would result in fewer citizen complaints, but the reports speculates it’s possible officers behave differently when they know they are being recorded. Law enforcement officers, on the other hand, have suggested the cameras might deter people from filing false or frivolous complaints when they know the interaction is being recorded.

Researchers found body cameras have also had an impact on criminal investigations and the prosecution of crimes.

The Linn County Sheriff’s Office rolled out its body camera program nearly three years ago.

Linn County Sheriff Brian Gardner said one of the draws to deploying body cameras was the device’s ability to aid in the documentation of interviews as well and the collection of evidence.

One example the sheriff gave was using cameras to document what happens during a traffic stop.

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“During a traffic stop, you know, the in-car camera gets the information from the back of the vehicle, but we’re not seeing what’s going on at the front of the vehicle or inside of the vehicle,” he said. “Now, with the body cameras, we can get the whole picture. We know what’s happening from the back, the front and inside the car.”

However, while the public expected the cameras footage to lead to more prosecutions of alleged police misconduct, that footage is instead being used in the criminal prosecution of citizens.

In one study, 93 percent of prosecutors’ offices reported they had used camera footage predominantly in prosecutions of civilians, a stark contrast to the “8.3 percent of (responding prosecutors) who … had ever used BWC footage in a case brought against an officer.”

Additionally, findings from three other studies indicated cameras could play a role in raising clearance rates and producing more guilty pleas. Other reports showed cameras were particularly useful in domestic violence cases, and led to an increase in arrests, charges, guilty pleas and guilty verdicts.

Other Conclusions

One commonly cited expectation was that the widespread deployment of body cameras would foster greater accountability within departments. To date, the report states, the research has not detected any such shifts. It was also hoped that body cameras would increase the public’s trust in police. But again, research shows the devices have not lived up to those expectations.

According to one study, there were no reported links found between the deployment of body cameras and a community’s view of police legitimacy, professionalism or satisfaction with police interactions.

“Perhaps more important to point out is that technologies do not influence reform organizations insomuch as organizations shape (or inhibit) the use of the technology,” researchers concluded.

In other words, the organization’s policies and culture will really determine how the technology is used and the impacts it will have.

“Police body cameras can’t and won’t resolve the broad and significant shortcomings that exist in our nation’s policing and criminal justice systems,” Stringer said. “Body cameras alone won’t resolve the mistrust that continues to fester in many communities between civilians and law enforcement, and in many cases, the data would show those communities were angry for good reasons — the over policing of certain neighborhoods, the disproportionate arrests and incarceration of people of color, particularly black men and particularly here in Iowa. So I mean, body cameras alone aren’t going to fix that.”

Here to Stay

Despite the uncertainty surrounding body cameras and their effects, the devices are likely not going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the report indicated the deployment of such devices will likely continue to increase in departments across the nation.

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The report referenced a year-old survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics that reported 47 percent of general-purpose law enforcement agencies had already acquired the technology as of 2016, and studies consistently showed that officers’ attitudes toward the cameras improve with use.

But researchers cautioned a department’s decision to invest in body camera technology should not be made simply because other departments are doing so. In-depth research is necessary to determine if the technology will meet the agency’s and the public’s expectations, the report said.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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