Police Body Cameras Reduce Use Of Force, If Cops Can’t Turn Them Off

A new study of more than 2,000 police officers aims to determine how much they actually reduce force by officers

Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson wears a body camera in Chicago, Illinois, United States, May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young - RTX2D746 — REUTERS
May 16, 2016 at 7:02 PM ET

In the age of high-profile police shootings, body cameras are meant to be an antidote—a way to create transparency and accountability on the part of officers and civilians alike. But a new study could turn some of that on its head, showing that incidents in which cops with body cameras use force actually vary dramatically, depending on when the officers can turn the devices off.

A University of Cambridge study, published Wednesday in the European Journal of Criminology and the Journal of Experimental Criminology, was conducted through 10 trials of more than 2,100 officers and a combined 2.2 million hours of police work. It compared use of force incidents by and against officers with cameras to those without them.

It found that officers with body cameras were actually assaulted by members of the public 15 percent more times than the officers who didn’t have them. Study authors said this could be because officers were more likely to report the assaults when they knew they had been filmed or because officers were “less assertive” and thus more “vulnerable to attack” when they knew their interactions were being filmed.

The study lead, Barak Ariel from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, says that filming “modify[ies] the behaviour of all involved.” Ariel notes, “If an officer decides to announce mid-interaction they are beginning to film, for example, that could provoke a reaction that results in use-of-force.”

When it came to police use of force against citizens, study results initially suggested that there wasn’t much difference between officers with and without cameras. But when researchers looked deeper, they found that this was very much dependent on whether or not the officers followed the protocol, which requires them to film every encounter with the public from beginning to end (with certain exceptions for sexual assaults or conversations with informants).

More Bringing Police Body Cameras Into Focus

Guess what? When officers followed the protocol, use of force incidents dropped by 37 percent compared to the camera-free control group. But, when they were selective about what to film and when to turn the camera on, use of force incidents rose by 71 percent.

According to a 2015 report from the ACLU, about a quarter of American police departments use body cameras, but many more are trying to figure out ways to adopt them. Last fall, the Justice Department announced it had granted $23 million to police departments across dozens of states to buy and implement body cameras. But, just how big an impact these cameras will have in real world policing is just beginning to be understood.

Two of the authors of this study also co-wrote the first scientific study of body-worn cameras, released in 2013, which looked at cameras used by the Rialto, California police department. It showed that use-of-force incidents dropped by 59 percent and reports against officers fell by 87 percent compared to the previous year’s figures, when officers were not wearing cameras. This study is frequently cited by pro-body camera interests (including manufacturers and law enforcement officers) as proof that body cameras help both officers and the public they serve alike. These results were mirrored by subsequent studies, though this appears to be the first study that looked at how the use of force incidents may change depending on how much discretion an officer had over when to film.

Organizations like the ACLU have argued for years that police body cameras are only as effective as the amount of control the officer wearing them has over their use. Even the encounters that are filmed may not lead to the transparency that body camera proponents claim: Some states have enacted (or are in the process of enacting) laws that make it difficult to impossible for the public to access them using the Freedom of Information Act, while some police departments have made videos that it is required to release restrictively expensive to obtain.