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Intuitively, police body cameras should improve the conduct of both the police and the public. After all, if an officer knows that his actions are being filmed for later review, then they are less likely to engage in bad or illegal behavior. There can be, of course, some notable exceptions. In the case of the public, it would also make sense that people would behave somewhat better when interacting with the police if they know they are being filmed. Because of these reasons and others, I was in favor of the deployment of police body cameras. This was, I must admit, in the absence of actual evidence regarding their effectiveness. Fortunately, a large scale and rigorous study has been conducted on the use of such cameras.
Somewhat surprisingly, the study showed that the cameras had no significant effect on the use of force by the police or citizen complaints. The study was conducted from June 2015 to December 2016 in Washington, D.C. using the 2,600 officers of the force. Based on the description of the study, it seems to have been properly conducted and thus presumably avoided the usual suspects when it comes to poor studies and fallacious causal reasoning. As such, it is reasonable to accept its results (assuming no new information emerges).
While tiny HD cameras and storage are absurdly cheap these days, police body cameras tend to be relatively expensive. Part of the cost is certainly legitimate—camera and data storage integrity need to be assured. Part of the cost is, no doubt, made up of the usual dubious and sketchy additions whenever the state is buying anything. Whatever the reason for the cost, the fact that the study shows that the cameras do not impact use of force or citizen complaints should certainly cause police departments to reconsider spending budget money on this technology. After all, putting the money in hiring more officers or better training would seem to be preferable ways to improve law enforcement. There are also concerns that video could be misused by the police, such as when writing incident reports. That said, there are still reasons to use the body cameras.
One reason, as noted by the police in D.C., is that the video from the cameras can be important in addressing public concern. For example, public doubts about an incident can be addressed with video—such as this one in which it is clearly shown that the suspect was armed with a knife. If proper use of the cameras can help establish and maintain public trust, they can be worth using. This, of course, should be the subject of another study—if cameras do not have this effect, then this would obviously not justify the expense. A second reason is that the camera footage is, presumably, useful in court. While video evidence is not always decisive, it can be very valuable. This, of course, would also require a study to confirm.
While the study seems to have been conducted quite well, there is the obvious concern as to whether the D.C. Police differ in important ways from other police departments. As noted by NPR, there was about ten years of federal oversight aimed at improving the department. Since the department had been doing things right, it would hardly be surprising that adding cameras would not have a significant impact.
To use an analogy, suppose it was wondered whether making videos of a course available to students would improve their grades in that course. Imagine that the study was conducted using honors classes of the best students. It would not be surprising if the effect of videos was statistically insignificant. After all, top students are already doing very well and almost any change aimed at improving their already excellent performances will tend to not move the needle in any significant way. The same sort of analogy could be drawn using top athletes and a relatively minor change to their already very good workouts or already good diets.
While such a study would show that the use of videos would not really benefit top students, it does not prove that the use of videos would not provide a significant benefit to other students. For example, lower performing students who do poorly because they miss class could benefit significantly from such videos. The same would apply in the athletics example. While a small diet change (say some extra B vitamin rich foods) in an already good diet would not impact a top athlete, such a diet change for someone who has a poor diet could have a significant impact.
The same reasoning would seem to apply to the police body cameras—a department that is having significant problems with use of force and citizen complaints might benefit significantly from the use of body cameras. This, of course, should not something that should be just assumed. Rather, studies need to be conducted of the effect of body cameras on police forces that are currently having problems. If it turns out that they have no impact on addressing the woes they are supposed to address, then it would be reasonable to reconsider their deployment and focus more on alternative solutions.