Police Body Cameras Lead To Drop In Policing Complaints

Study shows the increased accountability is good for both officers and members of the public

A body camera from Taser is seen during a press conference — Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Oct 03, 2016 at 2:20 PM ET

The adoption of police body cameras (be it for the pursuit of justice or profit) seems to be working, both for the police and the people they serve and protect. A new study has found that the number of complaints filed by citizens declines drastically when police departments require police to both wear cameras and announce to the public that they’re wearing them. According to the annualized report, rates of complaints declined by as much as 93 percent across the board.

The report says that formal complaints filed by members of the public following encounters with police are inherent evidence of policing failures reflecting tension between the police and the public, regardless of whether or not the behavior is actually deemed inappropriate. In addition to reflecting potentially troublesome interactions, these complaints are also known to be costly for police departments.

The methodology outlined in this controlled trial required that officers wearing body cameras must agree to keep their cameras rolling throughout an entire shift, and inform all members of the public they interacted with that they were recording their encounters. In total, data from over 4,000 shifts across seven different police jurisdictions in the U.S. and U.K. were collected and analyzed. It was discovered that when the officers abided by these terms, complaints dropped by anywhere between 44 and 100 percent.

In the past, increased police use of body cameras has revealed a decrease in likelihood of police use of force. Needless to say, the adaptation of such technology has also heightened overall transparency in high-profile police shooting cases, even if questions have been raised over the quality and evidentiary value of body cam footage.

These new findings, researchers note, are twofold, reflecting the way an impartial account benefits all parties involved in an encounter.

“Individual officers become more accountable, and modify their behavior accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous,” study researcher Barak Ariel of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology told the BBC.

More Boston Police Finally Forced To Put On Body Cams

Overall, the occurrence of complaints filed against police officers is “rare,” though the issue itself is multi-faceted. Report authors note that it’s likely many grievances go unreported, while frivolous complaints made solely to inconvenience officers also do exist.

The study also discovered a phenomenon deemed “contagious accountability,” meaning that police officers who did not wear a body camera for the purpose of the study, but worked in the same departments as others who did, also attracted fewer complaints.

While the study paints an optimistic portrait of how body cameras could lead to behavioral changes in police-citizen interactions (an already-fraught dynamic often highlighted by factors like race and ethnicity), recent events highlight how the implementation of this new tech is nowhere near perfect. There’s ongoing debate surrounding the issue of public access to body cam footage in many states, and privacy issues have led some officers to file lawsuits after they discovered they were being filmed in restrooms.