Are police body cameras effective? Surveys say yes, generally

Many law enforcement officials and even the American Civil Liberties Union have voiced support for the use of body cameras by police officers in the wake of recent incidents across the country involving police and the use of force.

Would police body cameras help reduce such incidents? Can they help clear up complaints against police?

According to recent studies of departments where the cameras have been used, the answers, generally, have been “yes.”

A 2015 study [pdf] based on a year-long study by the Phoenix, Arizona police showed the 50 officers fitted with cameras had 23 percent fewer complaints filed against them than did officers without cameras. And this was despite the body-cam officers making 17 percent more arrests.

A similar study based on a 2013 survey in Mesa, Arizona showed a 40 percent reduction in overall complaints, and a 75 percent reduction in complaints about officers using force, and many of those were withdrawn when the person making the complaint had a chance to see the footage.

A third study [pdf], based on a year-long trial in 2012 in Rialto, California, showed the use of force by police declined 2½ times for officers wearing cameras compared to those without, while complaints filed against officers declined from 28 the previous year to just 3 during the study.

In each instance where the use of force by police was recorded by body cams, physical contact was initiated by the person being arrested, the study noted.

The study concludes that officers wearing body cameras know their actions are being recorded and as a result “increase their compliance to rules of conduct, especially around the use of force.” But it also notes members of the public were also aware their actions were being recorded and were “more cognizant that they ought to act cooperatively.”

The Phoenix study indicated the cameras may not be entirely foolproof, however.

During that study, officers with cameras were left with the decision of when to hit the record button, rather than leaving it running continually. As a result, officers recorded calls anywhere from 13 percent to 42 percent of the time.

Also, the study notes that the officers who use them are not necessarily happy about it. Officers surveyed express being not satisfied with increased work as a result of the devices. These include long download times, increased time spent on reports, and lingering concerns that recordings could be used against them by the department.

And as a July 19 University of Cincinnati incident, where a white campus police officer shot and killed an unarmed black driver, shows, the presence of a body camera does not eliminate the possibility of police misconduct. A functioning camera, however, will record it.

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