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Police Body Cams Can Change Behavior With Self-Awareness

New research from a landmark crime experiment using police body cameras shows that the technology is most effective at preventing escalation of violence, both by the police and towards the police.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC) say the knowledge that events are being recorded creates “self-awareness” in all participants during police interactions.

This is the critical component that turns body-worn video into a “preventative treatment,” they say, as it causes individuals to modify their behavior in response to an awareness of third-party surveillance by these cameras, which act as a proxy for legal courts, as well as the court of public opinion.

The study is based on a 12-month experiment conducted in Rialto, Calif., in 2012. During that time, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent and reports against officers dropped by 87 percent against the previous year’s figures, according to the researchers.

However, the researchers cautioned that the Rialto experiment is only the first step on a long road of evidence-gathering, and that more needs to be known about the impact of body-worn cameras in policing before departments are “steamrolled” into adopting the technology.

Vital questions remain about how the video will affect prosecution expectations, as well as how police departments will store the enormous amount of video that will be captured.

President Obama recently promised to spend $75 million in federal funds on body-worn video after the killing of several unarmed black men by police caused nationwide protests.

But some question the merit of camera technology given that the officer responsible for killing Eric Garner — a 43-year-old black man suffocated during his arrest for selling untaxed cigarettes —  was acquitted by a grand jury despite the fact that a bystander filmed the altercation on a mobile phone.

The footage showing an illegal chokehold administered on Garner who repeatedly stated: “I can’t breathe.” A medical examiner subsequently ruled the death a homicide.

The researchers at Cambridge say that the results from their Rialto experiment show that body-worn cameras can mitigate the need for such evidence by preventing excessive use-of-force in the first place.

Data from the experiment shows police officers are deterred from unacceptable uses-of-force — indeed, from using force in general — by the awareness that an interaction is being filmed, they say. However, they note that this deterrence relies on knowing about the surveillance.

A bystander filming an incident, such as in the Garner case, would not generate the self-awareness and resulting behavior modification during the incident as observed during Rialto’s institutionalized camera use, the researchers explain.

“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,” said Dr. Barak Ariel, from the Cambridge’s IoC, who conducted the crime experiment with Cambridge colleague Dr. Alex Sutherland and Rialto Police Chief Tony Farrar.

“With institutionalized body-worn camera use, 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.

“Police subcultures of illegitimate force responses are likely to be affected by the cameras, because misconduct cannot go undetected — an external set of behavioral norms is being applied and enforced through the cameras,” he continued.

“Police-public encounters become more transparent and the curtain of silence that protects misconduct can more easily be unveiled, which makes misconduct less likely.”

In Rialto, police use-of-force was 2.5 times higher before the cameras were introduced, he noted.

For the experiment, police shifts over the course of a year were randomly assigned to either wear the body camera, which is strapped to the officer’s torso or hat, or be in the control group, without a camera.

The dramatic reduction in both use-of-force incidents and complaints against the police during the experiment led the police department to implement an initial three-year plan for body-worn cameras.

When the police force released the results, they were held up by police departments, media, and governments in various nations as the rationale for camera technology to be integrated into policing.

The Cambridge researchers are currently replicating the Rialto experiment with more than 30 police forces across the world, from the West Yorkshire force and Northern Ireland’s PSNI in the UK to forces in the United States and Uruguay, and aim to announce new findings at the IoC’s Conference for Evidence-Based Policing in July 2015.

Early signs match the Rialto success, showing that body-worn cameras do appear to have “significant positive impact” on interactions between officers and civilians, the researchers report.

However, the researchers caution that more research is required, and urge police forces considering implementing body-worn-cameras to contact them for guidance on setting up similar experiments.

“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,” said Sutherland.

The researchers note that the body-worn cameras appear to be highly cost-effective. Analysis from Rialto showed every dollar spent on the technology saved about $4 on complaint litigations.

However, with technology becoming ever cheaper, the sheer levels of data storage has the potential to become crippling, the researchers note.

“The velocity and volume of data accumulating in police departments — even if only a fraction of recorded events turn into downloadable recordings for evidentiary purposes — will exponentially grow over time,” said Ariel.

“User licenses, storage space, security costs, maintenance, and system upgrades can potentially translate into billions of dollars worldwide.”

And, if body-worn cameras become the norm, what might the cost be when video evidence isn’t available?

“Historically, courtroom testimonies of response officers have carried tremendous weight, but prevalence of video might lead to reluctance to prosecute when there is no evidence from body-worn-cameras to corroborate the testimony of an officer, or even a victim,” said Ariel.

“Body-worn video has the potential to improve police legitimacy and enhance democracy, not least by calming situations on the front line of policing to prevent the pain and damage caused by unnecessary escalations of volatile situations.

“But there are substantial effects of body-worn video that can potentially offset the benefits which future research needs to explore,” he concluded.

Source: University of Cambridge

Police Body Cams Can Change Behavior With Self-Awareness

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Police Body Cams Can Change Behavior With Self-Awareness. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 26 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.