(Photo courtesy of American Civil Liberties Union of Washington)
Following a series of police-involved shootings that came to light as a result of cell phone videos recorded by citizens, to outfit police with body cameras. About a year ago, D.C. expanded its program to provide cameras to nearly every officer.
The basic idea behind the cameras is like something from a “Psychology 101” class, namely the Hawthorne effect, where individuals are known to change behavior due to their knowledge of being observed.
However, a recent study published by The Lab @ DC, called “Evaluating the Effects of Police Body-Worn Camera,” found that police didn’t act much differently.
The conclusion of that working paper published on October 20 states: “We are unable to detect any statistically significant effects. As such, our experiment suggests that we should recalibrate our expectations of BWCs [Body-Worn Cameras].”
The report suggests the cameras themselves may not be a solution to the issues they were designed to address. conclusion continues: “Law enforcement agencies (particularly in contexts similar to Washington, DC) that are considering adopting BWCs should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology.”
The paper was authored by David Yokum, Director of The Lab @ DC and Anita Ravishankar, a research fellow from the Metropolitan Police Department.
It contradicted what police brass expected.
“I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” Chief of Police Peter Newsham told NPR. “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.
Four families of outcome measures were assessed as part of the paper: Police use of force, civilian complaints, policing activity and judicial outcomes.
The idea is that “cameras are expected to encourage officer adherence to departmental protocols and deter police from engaging in unprofessional behavior or misconduct, especially unjustified use of force,” according to the working paper.
Previously, a study done in Rialto, Ca., in 2012 indicated that the cameras had a calming effect on policing outcomes.
Yet, a major difference between those studies were the rigorous methodology and larger sample size used in the District.
There were 54 front-line, uniformed officers in the Rialto experiment, as compared with 2,224 MPD officers in the Washington, D.C. Randomized Controlled Trial. More than 1,000 members were also assigned to the control group during the 11 months of the study.
Nearly one thousand hours of footage was collected each day by the MPD, with about 40 percent of that footage being deleted within 90 calendar days. The average video recorded was just over 11 minutes long.
Implementing the cameras for police forces across the country means that departmental IT infrastructure must be expanded or modernized. The paper indicates the challenges toward camera adoption, namely that “they are financially costly and involve new administrative complexities, such as officer training and procedures for retention of and access to video footage.”
The technology behind the study is also noteworthy. Axon, the company that manufactures TASER Smart Weapons, “has sold more than 300,000 police cameras worldwide and cites the Rialto study on its website,” according to The New York Times. The company has extended an offer for free products, offering its Axon Body 2 product to U.S. law enforcement agencies across the country as part of a National Field Trial Agreement.
The U.S. Department of Justice awarded more than $20 million in funding to support camera deployment starting back in 2015.
Social justice groups such as the ACLU and Black Lives Matter have been pushing for the police to use the cameras with the perceived benefits being additional accountability and transparency, evidence documentation, and a decrease in situations where the lethal use of force was used inappropriately.
The study leaves open that it is possible that the “null finding may be real” and that with the cameras, “there may be an effect, but it is hidden.”
The paper also accounts for the fact that the composition of the MPD and its jurisdiction makes it different from other police departments as it “may equip them with a unique set of skills that translate into improvements in their interactions with District residents and visitors,” and that the “elevated scrutiny MPD encounters” may have limited the cameras’ effects.
Yet the paper concludes, “We would also temper expectations about (and suggest further research into) the evidentiary value of [body cameras]. [They] may have great utility in specific policing scenarios, but we cannot conclude from this experiment that they can be expected to produce large department-wide improvement in outcomes.”
Whether or not this will lead to other police departments across the country changing their use of the technology remains to be seen, as the cameras do seem to be perceived as adding a “trust factor” between communities and their police departments.
And now with some results made public coming from the other side of the Thin Blue Line, there’s a suggestion that technological solutions might not always be the end-all, be-all solutions on their own to bring change in complex areas.