I wish I could've addressed this study the day it came out, but I've been dealing with a whole host of things that's kept me from getting back into blogging. Besides, I didn't receive word of this study until the day after Christmas -- there were a ton of distractions that kept me from even reading it. That being said, I'm more than happy to review this study's findings now, because it really is good news.
In a study entitled "The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizen's Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial," published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Ariel et al. review what is the first scientific report on the topic of whether or not police body-worn cameras work in terms of decreasing the rate of excessive force by police. As the title suggests, it also reviewed the effects of body-worn cameras on the rate of complaints raised by citizens against the police for excessive use of force.
|Eric Garner: one of many examples.|
But the present study is a randomized controlled trial to see not only if that's the case, but what other benefits could be found in implementing body-worn cameras. Over the period of 12 months, a sample of 54 officers (but the number of patrol shifts, n = 988, was the primary focus) were randomly assigned to either experimental shifts or control shifts, where they would either be equipped with body-worn HD cameras or not, respectively. After examining the results, it was found that use of force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59%, and reports against officers dropped 87%. This is interesting not only because of how great the effectiveness was of implementing the body-worn cameras, but it was actually protective against seemingly unreasonable complaints brought against the officers. So not only can the cameras serve to provide evidence in cases of excessive force, but they can be preventative as well, as institutionalized camera usage requires that the officer warn the citizen before any exchange that they're being recorded, thus impacting the psyche of those involved.
It's important to note that the statistics provided can, of course, convince people that cases of excessive force are widespread. This isn't necessarily the case: in the present study, it was observed that the implementation of body-worn cameras decreased complaints filed against officers from 0.7 per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts. It was already a fairly low number, but the difference was still statistically significant and has wide implications for areas that may have higher rates of complaints filed against the police.
It's also important to note that the study drew a dichotomy between excessive force and reasonable force, where force of any kind was defined as a non-desirable response in police-public encounters. This is a very vague definition for force, but the researchers saw it desirable to keep it this way because whether justified or unjustified, the aim was to examine the officers' relationships with the community and how the utilization of body-worn cameras would impact this. At the same time, the study authors warn that this should not be taken as solid evidence to start steamrolling this technology into usage, and also consider the possibility that the reliance on these cameras will cause lack of consideration or prosecution in cases where video evidence does not exist.
This wouldn't be too much of a problem if the usage of cameras didn't face other challenges, such as whether or not they'll even be on. It's been found that most of the time, body-worn cameras are either turned off or are conveniently "lost" prior to situations where they may be needed most. It's hard to understand how it's even possible for police officers to be allowed to turn their cameras off, thus defeating the purpose of putting them there in the first place. In my opinion, the removal of cameras from the officer's person or shutting them off should be done at the station, not in the field.
Neglecting to mention privacy complaints as well (I really don't want to get into that), my response to this study is this: it's about damn time. The United States is rather well-known internationally for their militarized police; and to be forthcoming about my own biases, I entirely agree. The American police are far too edgy and trigger happy to do their jobs properly. As the authors suggested, this study isn't the end, but it should definitely be the beginning of a more careful and rigorous observation so that we can determine whether or not the use of these cameras is effective enough to be implemented across the country. And of course, if that's the case, then don't include a readily accessible off switch.
Thank you all very much for reading.
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Ariel, B., Farrar, W., & Sutherland, A. (2014). The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Quantitative Criminology DOI: 10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3