The logic behind police body cameras is pretty simple: officers are less likely to push boundaries if they know they are being recorded. However, the latest data suggests that Washington, D.C., police officers did not change their behaviors after being forced to wear body cameras.
The Lab @ DC is the latest team put together by District Mayor Muriel Bowser to use statistics to analyze government policies and proposals. Their first research study
looks at wearing body cameras and whether or not they influence police behavior.
The study looked at 2,224 full-time metropolitan police officers who worked in seven different districts in the city. Half were given body cameras, and half were not. For the study, researchers focused on four factors: officer uses of force against civilians, complaints against officers, policing activities (whether officers arrest people for questionable charges like disorderly conduct), and whether or not recorded officers' charges resulted in a higher conviction rate.
Going into the study, the government researchers expected the body cameras to result in better police behavior. They expected fewer uses of force, fewer complaints, and a higher conviction rate because officer testimony could be verified through video evidence. The results, however, were the opposite.
There were 74 more use of force incidents among officers wearing the body cameras than there were in the control group. The researchers declared that the effect of body cameras on use of force incidents was statistically insignificant, meaning police body cameras "had no detectable, meaningful effect on documented uses of force." On top of that, the officers wearing body cameras actually had 57 more
civilian complaints levied against them, suggesting that the prospect of being recorded did nothing to temper officers' actions.
While the researchers cautioned against making any assumptions, they did notice that officers wearing body cameras won more than 2,400 of their criminal cases in court than the control group of officers that did not wear cameras. However, that increase was not determined to be significant, meaning it was not large enough for them to solely attribute the rise to the body-worn cameras.
In addition to the possibility of the findings being real, the researchers listed a few other explanations for the results. Given the fact that D.C. police officers are already under heightened scrutiny, it is possible that decades of reform efforts may have limited the results. While that might be presumptuous, the government researchers suggest that if police departments are already complying with regulations, the addition of body cameras will not make them comply any more. Additionally, the spread of other cameras, especially civilians' cell phone cameras, may have already influenced police behavior. While body-worn cameras are relatively new, officers have known for years that their every action could be recorded, either by a private cell phone or on one of D.C.'s many security cameras.
Overall, the researchers at The Lab @ DC recommend that the public should recalibrate its expectations surrounding body-worn cameras. If you believe that adding a camera to a police officer's uniform will magically lead to a reduction in uses of force or civilian complaints against officers, the data does not back that up. While body cameras may affect individual police encounters, they warn that those single instances may be impossible to quantify.
What do you think? Should police be forced to wear body-worn cameras? Let us know in the comment section below!