Can Body Cameras Protect the Public and Police? First-Ever Study Says So

Findings show significant drops in excessive use of force reports when cameras are present, but experts warn more research is needed.

(Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Dec 27, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

President Obama has asked Congress for $263 million to buy 50,000 police cameras, but no real scientific evidence has shown body-worn cameras are effective in keeping law enforcement officers from using excessive force on the public.

Until now.

A new scientific study out of the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology examined the Rialto (Calif.) Police Department’s use of body cameras over one year. The results showed the devices can work both ways—protecting the public from the police and the police from the public.

A significant drop in use-of-force incidents by police was recorded—59 percent—and reports against officers fell by 87 percent compared with the previous year’s total. The findings suggest that body-worn cameras could lead to fewer incidents of excessive use of force by police and protect police at the same time.

The reason, the study suggests, is that the camera’s presence creates a “self-awareness” in all participants during a police interaction. And that awareness can act as a preventive treatment, leading individuals on both sides of the law to modify their behavior when they know they’re being recorded.

“An officer is obliged to issue a warning from the start that an encounter is being filmed, impacting the psyche of all involved by conveying a straightforward, pragmatic message: We are all being watched, videotaped and expected to follow the rules,” Barak Ariel, a Cambridge researcher and coauthor of the study, said in a statement.

Some of the results had been reported as far back as the summer of 2013, making the city of Rialto a poster child for the use of the new technology. Now, with the results published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, Ariel and Cambridge colleague Alex Sutherland said the findings are a first step in evidence gathering, not a blanket endorsement of body cameras.

“Rialto is but one experiment; before this policy is considered more widely, police forces, governments and researchers should invest further time and effort in replicating these findings,” Sutherland said in a statement.

Still, body cameras are popping up on law enforcement across the country. But they’ll only help if officers wear them. In a recent shooting on Dec. 23 in Berkeley, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, a white officer shot an armed 18-year-old black man. While nearby surveillance cameras captured footage of the incident, the officer was not wearing the body camera that had been assigned to him.

The death of Eric Garner on July 17 involved a white New York police officer choking the 43-year-old black man and pulling him to the ground, Ariel said the incident might have unfolded differently had the police and Garner known they were being recorded.

“The ‘preventative treatment’ of body-worn video is the combination of the camera plus both the warning and cognition of the fact that the encounter is being filmed. 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,” he said.

Ariel and Sutherland are now busy replicating their Rialto experiment with 30 police departments around the world. They hope to announce new and more comprehensive findings on body-worn cameras in 2015.