What bodycam research reveals about police officers

The rallying cry of demanding surveillance of police officers by strapping cameras on them has been heard and obeyed. The results show that cops are amazing


Time is not on the side of anti-police politicians and activists. The recent flurry of cries for tightened use of force rules and increased prosecution of police officers is facing the results of the demands for accountability and transparency in police operations. The rallying cry of demanding surveillance of police officers by strapping cameras on them has been heard and obeyed.

The results show that cops are amazing.

The anti-cop movement must move furiously fast before the mythology of violent and racist policing finally meets the facts. The swell of sentiment must eventually face the reality that policing has never been better. Unfortunately, some police policy makers are still moving in the direction of the myth. Recent police recruitment and retention problems likely are the price society is paying for the rabid narrative of cops out of control.

In this still image taken from video captured by a body-worn camera, police officers save a puppy who was left in a hot car. (Photo/Pensacola Police Department)
In this still image taken from video captured by a body-worn camera, police officers save a puppy who was left in a hot car. (Photo/Pensacola Police Department)

Cops wearing bodycams enforce the law

Recently published research and evaluation of the effects of equipping police patrol officers with body-worn cameras (BWC) in Las Vegas shows that police officers are not intimidated by wearing BWCs. In fact, this study showed that those officers made more arrests and issued more citations than the control group without cameras. The report cautions that policy makers “should consider the competing effects of improvement in civilian perceptions of police generated by reductions in complaints and use of force incidents and of public concerns about increased enforcement activity.”

It seems that critics hadn’t considered that police officers wearing bodycams would not only continue to enforce the law but do so as vigorously as ever. That same opposition expresses fears that police might use their video to improve evidence collection and accuracy of reports by looking at their video just as they would review their notes and sketches to complete their reports. Those who demanded that cameras watch the police are realizing the cameras are watching the community as well. And, by the way, cops overwhelmingly support body cameras, confident that their behavior can withstand scrutiny.

Critics who might claim that studies are tainted by selecting low-complaint officers to wear cameras for their surveys and research will be disappointed. In fact, in the Las Vegas study, “There were no statistically significant differences in sex, race, age, years on the job, mean yearly complaints, and mean yearly use of force reports noted between the patrol officers who volunteered to participate in the randomized controlled trial and those who did not. These data suggest that officers with higher numbers of complaints and use of force reports did not seem to avoid participating in the body-worn camera pilot program. Indeed, on most observable characteristics, the volunteer officers seemed no different than those officers who chose not to volunteer for the program.”

Most studies, including the Las Vegas study, show a decrease in complaints on officers who are BWC-equipped. Whether this is because cops behave better, or the complainers know they can’t lie and get away with it, seems to depend on the critics’ perspective.

Another study among Washington, D.C. Metropolitan police also surprised police critics. "We found essentially that we could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras," says Anita Ravishankar, a researcher with the Metropolitan Police Department. DC’s Chief of Police Peter Newsham noted that there was a prevailing expectation that police behavior would change significantly with BWCs.  “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all. Perhaps, as Newsham stated, his officers "were doing the right thing in the first place."

The high cost of acquiring cameras and sustaining the burdensome demands of storage, retrieval, review and release has yet to be fully realized. Any thoughts of balancing the cost of a BWC program against proposed savings in civil suits and settlements must disappear under the reality that since cameras are proving how little misconduct actually exists, there are few costs to reduce. The cases that have merit will continue, and the nuisance cases that were previously dismissed with a small settlement but now are more easily defended with video evidence still won’t balance the costs.

The public now expects to see video of every event just as juries now expect DNA evidence in every trial. Although in 2013 the Obama administration urged $75 million in funding for BWC during the first flurry of hopes to fix policing, the costs of continuing upgrades, replacement and maintenance will inevitably drop into the laps of local taxpayers and off the federal funding radar. The cost is high, although emerging technology offers the hope of solving the storage and hardware replacement challenge. It would be a sad irony if paying for cams on cops could come at the cost of having cops to wear them.

Police officers need and expect continuing accountability. The lessons that research is teaching us is that the profession has a good handle on doing the right thing. The cost in crime, police lives, losses of good men and women from the profession, and diversion of resources has yielded the answers to the critics’ questions. Now that the facts have spoken, it is time for political leaders and police policy makers to acknowledge that the war on cops needs to come to an end.

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