Outfitting police officers with body cameras is supposed to make them more careful, more cautious, and less willing to use force, but a new study out of Washington, D.C., suggests that officers with body cameras behave no differently than those who don’t wear them.
“I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” Chief of Police Peter Newsham said. “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.”
The study was conducted over seven months with around 1,000 randomly selected officers wearing body cameras and a similar number not wearing them. Researchers at the city’s in-house data lab kept careful track of many metrics related to officer behavior and arrests, but their primary focus was complaints against police and incidents in which officers used force.
The results were not what most expected. Officers who wore body cameras were the targets of slightly more complaints and used force slightly more often than those who did not wear cameras. The differences were so minor, though, that researchers concluded that there was no significant effect.
“I thought it would make a difference on police and civilian behavior — particularly for officers, and this is the exception, who might be more inclined to misbehave,” Newsham said.
The researchers posited a few suggestions to explain why the cameras had so little impact but they failed to find a satisfactory answer:
One hypothesis is that officers got used to the cameras and became desensitized to them. But the researchers saw no difference in behavior during the initial phase, when the cameras were new. (The researchers also checked the data to make sure officers were turning their cameras on when they were supposed to, and found a very high level of compliance.) Another possibility is that officers without cameras were acting like officers with cameras, simply because they knew other officers had the devices.
The researchers suggested that their findings are reason to “recalibrate our expectations” of body cameras. Law enforcement “should not expect dramatic reductions in documented uses of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology,” says a summary of the report.
Newsham said he did not want the results to make people think body cameras provide no value to police and citizens though. “I think it’s really important for legitimacy for the police department, when we say something, to be able to back it up with a real-world view that others can see,” he said.