Police body cameras have led to a 93 percent drop in public complaints against police, according to a year-long study of almost 2,000 officers across the United States and the U.K.
The findings suggest that the cameras contribute to behavioral changes that “cool down” potentially volatile encounters.
Body-worn cameras are becoming increasingly standard for law enforcement officers, hailed as a technological fix for what has been viewed as a crisis of police legitimacy. Up until now, however, there has been little confirmed evidence that the cameras are improving police-public relations.
Now, new findings from one of the largest randomized-controlled studies in the history of criminal justice research, led by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, show that the use of body-worn cameras on police officers is tied to a startling 93 percent drop in citizen complaints against police.
Researchers believe these cameras may be modifying behavior through an “observer effect:” the awareness that encounters are recorded improves both suspect demeanor and police procedural compliance. Essentially, the “digital witness” of the camera encourages cooler heads to prevail.
“The cameras create an equilibrium between the account of the officer and the account of the suspect about the same event, increasing accountability on both sides,” said Cambridge criminologist and lead author Dr. Barak Ariel.
The study involved seven locations during 2014 and early 2015, including the UK Midlands and the Californian coast, and encompassed 1,429,868 officer hours across 4,264 shifts in jurisdictions that cover a total population of two million citizens.
Every week for a year, the researchers randomly assigned each officer shift as either with cameras (treatment) or without (control), with all officers experiencing both conditions.
The researchers write that, if levels of complaints offer at least some guide to standards of police conduct — and misconduct — these findings suggest that use of body-worn cameras are a “profound sea change in modern policing.”
“Cooling down potentially volatile police-public interactions to the point where official grievances against the police have virtually vanished may well lead to the conclusion that the use of body-worn cameras represents a turning point in policing,” said Ariel.
“There can be no doubt that body-worn cameras increase the transparency of frontline policing. Anything that has been recorded can be subsequently reviewed, scrutinized, and submitted as evidence.
“Individual officers become more accountable, and modify their behavior accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous.”
However, Ariel cautions that one innovation, no matter how positive, is unlikely to provide a panacea for a deeply rooted issue such as police legitimacy.
Overall, across all seven trial sites during the 12 months preceding the study, a total of 1,539 complaints were lodged against police, amounting to 1.2 complaints per officer. By the end of the experiment, complaints had dropped to 113 for the year across all sites just 0.08 complaints per officer — marking a total reduction of 93 percent.
One surprising finding was that the difference between the treatment and control groups once the experiment began was not statistically significant; nor were the variations between the different sites.
However, the before/after difference caused by the overall experimental conditions across all forces was enormous. While only around half the officers were wearing cameras at any one time, complaints against police right across all shifts in all participating forces dwindled to almost nothing.
Researchers say this may be an example of “contagious accountability”: with large scale behavioral change — in officers but also perhaps in the public — seeping into almost all interactions, even during camera-less control shifts, once the experiment had introduced camera protocols to participating forces.
“It may be that, by repeated exposure to the surveillance of the cameras, officers changed their reactive behavior on the streets — changes that proved more effective and so stuck,” said co-author Dr. Alex Sutherland of RAND Europe.
The findings are published in the journal Criminal Justice and Behaviour.
Source: University of Cambridge