Law enforcement agencies in Iowa and across the nation are undergoing one of the fastest technological transitions in modern history.
The use of body-worn cameras to document police interactions has exploded in recent years, with the number of participating agencies more than doubling since 2013.
It was pitched as a game changer for law enforcement, a way to reduce unnecessary police confrontations, racial disproportionality and excessive uses of force. Surveillance devices would hold both citizens and officers accountable, advocates such as myself predicted.
A few years into this grand experiment, the results are lacking.
Body cameras “have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police,” authors from George Mason University wrote in a recent study. Their review of 70 empirical studies of body cameras was published this year in the Criminology and Public Policy journal.
The available research shows no clear evidence that body cameras reduce officers’ use of force overall. Interestingly however, officers who have discretion over when to turn on their cameras tended to employ force more often than officers without discretion.
The studies under review showed no clear pattern of body cameras reducing arrests or citations. Instead, at least one study speculated that cameras may lead to more arrests because officers worry their discretion not to detain people might be scrutinized by supervisors.
Body cameras do not seem to correct the imbalance of power between law enforcement and the public. One study found less than 10 percent of jurisdictions with body cameras ever used the footage in a case brought against an officer, and instead videos are overwhelmingly used to prosecute citizens.
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One reason for the imbalance is that policing agencies maintain control over the footage they gather. This underscores the need for strong public disclosure laws, but even with that in place, stonewalling and data mismanagement may still persist.
To be clear, this is not a rejection of video technology in law enforcement. Body cameras are relatively new, and the George Mason University scholars emphasize the need for ongoing research. Members of the public and police officers generally support the use of body cameras, and that alone may be reason enough to continue equipping officers, with an understanding that citizen oversight is crucial.
Body camera technology became widely available around the same time the nation was dealing with a series of widely reported incidents involving unarmed people of color killed by police officers.
Americans eager for a quick fix embraced the promise of high-tech accountability. We threw millions of dollars at the problem, hoping we wouldn’t have to worry about it.
But technology will not save us from bad public policy. Police officers today are tasked with enforcing overreaching public order laws and nonsensical drug prohibition, imposed by politicians who don’t have to deal with the direct consequences of their policies.
Meaningful and sustainable improvement in police-public relationships will require more than gadgets.
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