What Happens When You Put Cameras on Cops? - Pacific Standard

What Happens When You Put Cameras on Cops?

According to a study released in November, body cameras can help drastically reduce levels of violence by—and against—cops.
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Might American police officers start wearing body-cameras? (Photo: westmidlandspolice/Flickr)

Might American police officers start wearing body-cameras? (Photo: westmidlandspolice/Flickr)

The killings of Michael Brown in August, Eric Garner in July, and, more recently, Antonio Martin, have sparked a larger national conversation, focusing in part on the need to equip our officers with body cameras. Cameras would help hold police accountable for their actions, proponents argue, while also offering evidence in favor of officers falsely accused of abusing their power. As ACLU analyst Jay Stanley explained to Vox: “A lot of departments are finding that for every time [body cameras are] used to record an abusive officer, there are other times where they save an officer from a false accusation of abuse or unprofessional behavior."

Michael Brown’s death gives perhaps the most compelling evidence for body cameras,as footage would have shown what happened between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown that fateful day; instead, we are forced to rely on Wilson’s own personal testimony. But even Antonio Martin’s case, which indeed was captured on camera, could have been cleared up—are we absolutely sure that was a gun?—the events that transpired.

With the cameras, officer use-of-force dropped by 59 percent compared to the previous year’s numbers, while reports of individuals acting against officers plummeted by 87 percent.

University of Cambridge researchers have finally offered empirical evidence to what has mostly been an emotional plea with an experiment designed to test the effects of policing with body cameras. Working together with the Railto, California, police squad, the Cambridge team—whose study was published in the November edition of theJournal of Quantitative Criminology—issued pocket-sized cameras to the Rialto cops for a 12-month period. The results were encouraging: With the cameras, officer use-of-force dropped by 59 percent compared to the previous year’s numbers, while reports of individuals acting againstofficers plummeted by 87 percent. In all, police use-of-force dropped 2.5 times below its pre-body-camera rate.

"With institutionalised body-worn-camera use, an officer is obliged to issue a warning from the start that an encounter is being filmed,” says Cambridge’s Dr. Barak Ariel, one of the co-authors of the paper. “[This will impact] the psyche of all involved by conveying a straightforward, pragmatic message: We are all being watched, videotaped, and expected to follow the rules.”

While some have made the argument that cameras can’t always help—the officer who killed Eric Garner was acquitted, despite the hand-held footage—Ariel points out that body cameras still discourage any violence on the officer’s end. The knowledge that a cop’s actions are being filmed, Ariel argues, could impact his or her actions.

"In the tragic case of Eric Garner, police weren't aware of the camera and didn't have to tell the suspect that he, and therefore they, were being filmed," Ariel adds.

Body cameras are just a small piece of a larger, far more complex puzzle. And these surveillance devices can be extremely costly, often around $400 per camera. (It’s worth noting, per the Wall Street Journal, that many of the critiques aimed at body cameras were similarly leveled against the Taser gun.) But at least now there is tangible proof that it would indeed be beneficial to put cameras on our cops.

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