Rose Institute's Wesley Edwards ’18 on the use of police body cameras
Ferguson, Missouri, a once obscure suburb of St. Louis, found itself on the national stage for an issue that dominated headlines and public debate for much of the last six months. The death of Michael Brown in an encounter with a police officer focused attention on the issue of fatal use of force by police. Confusion over the facts of the encounter between Michael Brown and the officer, Darren Wilson, left a vacuum that was quickly filled by allegations of police brutality and charges of police racism. Following a three month grand jury investigation, Officer Wilson was not charged with any wrong doing. The Department of Justice also investigated the incident and declined to bring civil rights charges against him. Nevertheless, the encounter between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri was a dominant news story for months. Police officers are granted a large measure of power and authority over civilians in order to do their jobs. The issue of police oversight and accountability is not new, but is rekindled by incidents such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Advocates of greater oversight for police are aided by technological advances, specifically recording technology. Dashboard-mounted video cameras, more commonly known as dashcams, are one such technology which has now become commonplace among police districts across the country. The vast majority of police vehicles used by on-duty patrol officers are equipped with a continuously recording dashcam that records officers as they carry out daily tasks while on patrol. Not only have these cameras proved useful to ensure police officers were following procedure, they have also proved effective in aiding law enforcement in apprehending criminals and documenting evidence. Dashcams regularly record the interactions which take place between officers and civilians during traffic stops and are used as evidence in criminal proceedings in cases ranging from resisting arrest to reckless driving and driving under the influence. Although they are now widely used and accepted, dashcams initially faced opposition because of privacy concerns raised by both officers and citizens. Despite these objections, dashcams are now standard equipment among police forces. As technology has progressed, the power of a dash-mounted camera can now fit within an even smaller small device, weighing only a few grams, that can be attached to sunglasses. Body-mounted cameras, according to a growing number of law enforcement officials, may increase the benefits already demonstrated by dashcams by broadening the range of police encounters that are recorded, and thus encouraging more desirable behavior.
Research from a variety of disciplines has provided strong evidence that when individuals are being watched, they become self-conscious of their actions and often will alter their conduct. Furthermore, individuals often alter their behavior in accordance with commonly accepted norms. Rialto Police Department Chief and Police Foundation Executive Fellow William Farrar sought to apply this psychological principle to police actions and behavior, as a part of his graduate studies in criminology at Cambridge University. Farrar devised a comprehensive, year-long study to measure the effect of body worn cameras on police officers and whether this altered behavior. He hypothesized that the presence of body-mounted cameras would “increase police officers self-consciousness that they were being watched and therefore increase their compliance to rules of conduct, especially around use of force.”
The city of Rialto, California, in San Bernardino County, is patrolled by the Rialto Police Department (RPD) which has jurisdiction over approximately 101,000 residents and 28.5 square miles. On average, approximately 3,000 property and 500 violent crimes are committed annually. Partnering with Taser Inc., a company that makes a variety of equipment for law enforcement agencies around the world, including body cameras, RPD began the experiment in January of 2012.
The study set up two types of shifts for on-duty patrol officers: experimental shifts during which officers would be equipped with body cameras, and control shifts where body cameras were not worn. These two types of shifts were randomly distributed among daytime, nighttime, weekend, and holiday shifts for the entire year to control for lurking variables in crime rates. The study instructed officers in the experimental group to turn on their recording devices when making formal contact, contact that exceeds informal communication and/or is related to criminal investigation, proceedings, warnings or issuing of citations. Because of their small size and light weight, the body cameras are usually attached to sunglasses typically worn by officers. Recorded footage was documented and analyzed by researchers, comparing police reports of use of force to data from the previous three years. Use of force, for this particular study, was defined as the use of “physical force more than a basic control or ‘compliance hold,’ including the use of pepper spray, baton, Taser, canine bite or firearm.” In addition to tracking use of force incidents, researchers also maintained records of civilian complaints made against officers for alleged misconduct or perceived poor performance.
Due to the high number of trials and comparative design of this study, researchers have concluded with a high degree of confidence that there is a correlation between the use of force by police officers and the presence of a body- mounted camera. The data indicate that force was 2.36 times more likely to be used during a control shift (without body-mounted camera), than the experimental shift (with body- mounted camera). Another key difference between the experimental and control groups was that Taser guns were used during a greater proportion of use of force incidents during experimental shifts than control shifts. During incidents where force was used, Tasers were used by experimental shift officers in five out of the seven incidents, while control shift officers used Tasers in seven out of 17 incidents. A final difference, and perhaps the most illuminating with regards to police behavior during the study, is the qualitative analysis of the use of force by officers. Analyzing each incident, researchers determined which party initiated the use of force. In all videotaped incidents of force, a member of the public was the party who initiated violent or aggressive physical contact with the police officer. During control shifts, four out of the 17 incidents of force were initiated by the officer, rather than the member of the public. No meaningful statistical analysis could be conducted comparing the number of complaints reported by civilians because there were too few complaints filed for both groups during the experiment.
Beyond comparing the experimental and control groups, researchers also compared yearly totals of use of force incidents and complaints during the trial period, to the previous three years. The data shows that despite a small increase in the number of Police-Public contacts, overall use of force incidents dropped significantly, just 25 use of force incidents occurred during the study compared to 60 or greater in the previous three years. Additionally, complaints filed against officers also fell significantly compared to previous years. During the year-long study, only three complaints were filed by citizens against RPD officers, a drastic decrease from 28 complaints filed in the year prior. These figures do not directly compare shifts where body cameras were or were not used. Rather these figures compare years where body-mounted cameras were not present to the year during which the study was conducted, meaning body-mounted cameras were worn by approximately half of the shifts in that year. Researchers therefore attributed the change in data to the presence of body-worn cameras being utilized within the police department, rather than being used on each shift.
The conclusion of the year-long Rialto study provided enough information to strongly support Chief Farrar’s hypothesis that the presence of body-worn cameras would provide a psychological incentive for police officers to alter their behavior. As a result, the Rialto Police Department now equips every uniformed officer, including patrol officers, school resource officers, and canine units, with a body-mounted camera. Since full implementation of body camera usage, additional evidence extends the conclusions reached in the initial study. Use of force incidents and number of complaints against officers remained steady despite more than doubling the number of officers being monitored. According to RPD Chief Farrar, patrol officers spent between 15 and 25 percent less time in court testifying from 2012 to 2014. This decrease is likely due to the increased efficiency of using bodycams to document evidence, which also produces more conclusive evidence, thus leading to more guilty pleas. Police departments benefit economically from reduced court time when officers spend less time testifying, rather than policing. Video evidence also improved efficiency in the judicial process by contributing to a 15 percent reduction in the number of dropped cases. Dropped cases are those which lack concrete or enough evidence to be taken to trial by the district attorney. These reductions save the police department and district attorney both time and money, while expediting the criminal justice process. Additionally, there was a 10-15 percent increase in officers’ proactivity in investigation of crimes, meaning that officers initiated contact, rather than responding to reports or dispatches. After K-9 unit handlers were equipped with body-mounted cameras in 2014, there were zero incidents where K-9 dogs were used to apprehend suspects. This is a sharp reduction from the six and nine apprehensions in 2012 and 2013 respectively. The consistency of these results in the years following the expansion of the use of body cameras adds to the evidence that body-mounted cameras contribute to a more efficient police force that is less likely to use force and prompt citizen complaints.
The scope of this study, however, is somewhat limited, focusing only on cumulative figures of use of force and complaints within a single, small police department. Conclusions about the effects of the body cameras on the police department as a whole, the ability of officers to carry out their jobs, and the relationship between citizens and police officers, are still the subject of much debate. Numerous police organizations, such as the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), have assessed what can be learned and applied from the Rialto study and others, as well as identified points of concern with the use of body cameras by police forces.
The greatest concern, for citizens and members of police departments alike, is that of privacy. These privacy concerns are not dissimilar from those offered when CCTV and surveillance camera systems were being implemented in increasing numbers across the United States. Citizens were concerned about a lack of privacy in public and reported feeling like “everyone is filming everybody.” While these attitudes have been dramatized by media outlets and popular culture, it can prove to be a substantial burden on the trust between law enforcement and the public. The problem of privacy in only compounded by the mobile nature of body-mounted cameras which can record anywhere a police officer goes. Unlike a surveillance camera which records from a fixed position, body-mounted cameras can record inside private homes, film sensitive situations and film in a much closer proximity than traditional surveillance cameras. California poses an additional hurdle to body camera use having adopted laws that require consent from the party filming and the party being filmed before recording can occur. Challenges against body camera usage based on this law were unsuccessful on the grounds that an individual in the presence of a police officer recording with a body-mounted camera has a reasonably lower expectation of privacy. Therefore, if a police officer is in a place legally, during the course of his or her duties, he or she is allowed to record. Nevertheless, circumstances such as recording inside private homes or sensitive situations, such as those related to sexual assault, domestic abuse, and others, could create complications for the use of body-mounted cameras.
From the police department perspective, police officers have also expressed concerns about the use of body-mounted cameras. The greatest obstacle when implementing such a large scale change is the issue of officer buy-in. In Rialto, Chief Farrar preempted this concern by working with police officer union representatives to craft a joint policy before implementing the program. This, along with frequent and direct discussion with officers to address concerns ensured a smooth transition with little to no resistance from officers. According to Chief Farrar, the program began to pick up steam when officers witnessed instances where officers were exonerated from complaints made against them because of the evidence provided by the body camera. Another primary concern is the effect body-mounted cameras will have on the relationship between patrol officers and upper level management. Officers fear that the cameras may be used unfairly to scrutinize their every move, potentially jeopardizing their jobs. Some police departments, including the Topeka Police Department in Kansas, have responded to this concern by prohibiting supervisors from randomly reviewing video files, unless multiple complaints have been made against the officer. Other police departments claim that this would defeat some of the benefit gained from the presence of cameras as training tools and performance indicators. Additionally, officers have suggested there must be limits placed upon what can be recorded. For example, some officers believe that their interactions with fellow officers or members of the public that do not constitute formal contact, as well as other other actions that take place during shifts (such as using the restroom), should not be recorded. For these reasons, there is a need for clear policies to maintain the highest levels of trust between police officers and the public, as well as between patrol officers and management.
Much of the privacy concerns raised are due to ambiguity about what is or is not going to be filmed, and what will be done with the information as police departments are gradually implementing and developing policy for this new technology. The unique privacy issues presented by body cameras are issues that have not been fully worked out. With any new technology used for law enforcement, there is a period where the limits of its usage are established through practice and litigation. Here are a few of the important questions that will need to be answered as body cameras become more prevalent. Will individual police officers be able to control when a camera is recording and when it may not? If so, what will officers be required to record and what can be omitted? What is the policy regarding redaction of faces, identities and addresses? Are there cases, such as sexual assault investigations or cases involving children, that should not be recorded? Will recorded data be made accessible to the public? If so, after how long? All of these questions are challenges that are being worked out on a department by department basis. Specially devised commissions, which include members of the patrol police force, management, union representatives, and support units, have been created by some police departments to help answer these questions as well as oversee the implementation of body-mounted cameras.
While these questions are being worked out within law enforcement agencies, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has also taken a position. The ACLU’s greatest concern is that if officers are given the ability to control recordings, they then have the ability to “edit on the fly” and thus have full discretion over what is recorded. This, according to the ACLU, would render the check against police power essentially useless. The ideal solution would be continuous recording of on-shift officers. However, this proves problematic for a variety of reasons. Police officers need privacy as employees when they are conversing with fellow officers, having private conversations or using the restroom. The alternative would create an environment so hostile that it would be stressful and oppressive for the officers to be constantly recorded by a supervisor. The compromise is therefore to place recording capabilities under officer control, but which could potentially be manipulated by the officer. The ACLU notes multiple incidents of dashcams being mysteriously turned off or inactive during use of force incidents. Therefore, a delicate balance needs to be struck which holds police officers accountable to being monitored during interactions with the public, but does not create an environment which is detrimental to the police officers functioning as employees.
While it would be ideal to record only evidence of crimes and potential wrongdoings, there is no way to know a priori whether an encounter should be recorded. This means that the vast majority of data collected will document innocent behavior by citizens and police alike. Because of this, the ACLU recommends that officers make every attempt possible to notify citizens when they are being recorded. Additionally, officers should proceed cautiously while recording inside private residences when responding to burglary calls or a witness’ voluntary compliance with an investigation. In these cases, the citizen being filmed is not directly being investigated. As many safeguards as possible should be put in place to ensure trust between the citizen and officer that the data will not be shared or used for any reason other than continuing the investigation.
Once video data is collected, additional privacy concerns arise, such as procedures for storing, accessing and using the data as evidence. The ACLU and PERF reports agree that police department policies should set clear procedures for how long the video data should be stored. During the storage period, officers, supervisors and members of the public should have the ability to “flag” any instances that may be pertinent in future investigations or complaints. For example, officers may have recorded a citizen resisting arrest. This portion of the footage could then be logged into evidence, while the remaining footage, which is not pertinent, could be scheduled for deletion. Similarly, during this period citizens who claim to have witnessed or experienced misconduct by an officer should be allowed to access the portion of the footage where the alleged act took place. If such an incident did occur, that section could be flagged and included as part of the complaint. It would be reviewed by supervisors according to department policy. These procedures must be clear, the ACLU argues, to avoid incidents of video footage that does not serve as evidence being leaked to the public, or used to embarrass or harass members of the public or officers. The ACLU cites examples of dashcam footage of celebrities pulled over for traffic infractions or DUI charges. These cases, they argue, do not benefit either officers or the public and should be deleted after being scanned for pertinent information.
Tight budgets pose the first constraint on police departments that may want to utilize body-mounted cameras. The issue of cost is one that cannot be overlooked as police departments rely on budgets that are already being squeezed by a variety of factors including the growing burden of pensions and retirement benefits. The cost of implementing a body camera program extends far beyond the initial purchase of the cameras. A system of supporting technology, staff and equipment must accompany body-mounted cameras to launch an effective program. In addition to the cameras themselves, infrastructure must be established to store the voluminous amount of video data that will be recorded, staff must be hired to manage this process, and time devoted to training officers on proper use and regulation of cameras. All of these costs can quickly add up when larger police departments are considered, such as Riverside and San Bernardino police departments, which have more than double the number of sworn officers compared to Rialto. Despite these expenses, the use of body cameras may still prove to be cost-effective if it results in fewer complaints filed against police officers and lawsuits against departments. While initial implementation may be expensive, like most technologies, gradual steps can be taken to spread the burden over multiple budget years with savings expected in the long term.
According to PERF, gradual implementation will be the approach taken as the use of body-mounted cameras will undoubtedly increase in the coming years. The growing demand by the public for more measures of police accountability, as well as the successful implementation and positive results that are being achieved by law enforcement agencies across the globe, are persuasive reasons that police departments may consider the use of body-mounted cameras. There are a variety of logistical concerns, as well as important privacy concerns, that are raised by this issue. Furthermore, police departments risk alienation from officers if the use of cameras creates a hostile environment where officers are scrutinized for every action. Police organizations and citizen protection groups are optimistic, however, that these complex issues can be solved by pragmatic and effective policy. It will take time and deliberation for this policy to be shaped, and must be tailored to fit the individual concerns of each department, yet there is a growing body of evidence that body-mounted police cameras may be an effective tool to protect the interests of both the public and the police officers.
Rialto is now entering its third year of full body camera implementation. As one of the first cities to test, on a large scale, the effects of body-worn cameras, Rialto continues to serve as a model for the benefits provided by a body camera program. Data collected during the years following the year-long study are consistent with the initial findings that officers equipped with body cameras are less likely to use force and be the object of citizen complaints. Additionally, new evidence suggests increased efficiency in the criminal justice process from investigation to trial. While cost and officer buy-in present considerable challenges, gradual implementation with cooperation between officers and administration can ensure a smooth transition to embracing this new technology. Multiple cities in California such as Colton, Los Angeles, Modesto, Ontario, and San Diego are in the process of or have implemented some kind of body mounted camera system. Body cameras may one day be just as prevalent as dash-mounted cameras and Taser devices as an integral part of law enforcement technology.