On the limitations of body cameras for reducing police misconduct

The problem of police brutality and misconduct is uncomfortable for many Americans–in large part because it contravenes so many of our cherished narratives about social progress, and about the United States as a land of freedom & justice–not to mention our post-9/11 idealization of first-responders.

When forced to confront these kinds of issues, which we would rather not have had to acknowledge at all, there is a temptation to seek out some kind of simple solution which can be easily applied to the problem wherever it manifests–and which can thereby allow us to stop thinking (and talking) about it.

Perhaps the primary focus in the aftermath of Ferguson and Baltimore has been on body cameras. Advocates point to the Department of Justice (DoJ) “Interim Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” which suggested that among the precincts studied, officers wearing body cameras had 87.5% fewer incidents of use of force, and 59% fewer complaints than officers who were not wearing cameras. These reductions, they claimed, are in part due to the fact that both police officers and suspects behaved differently under the knowledge they were being recorded. However, while “observer effects” on behavior have been well-documented in myriad contexts, there are reasons to temper one’s optimism as it relates to reducing incidences of police misconduct:

First, the DoJ studied a relatively small number of precincts. And the success of the cameras in these instances may not be attributable entirely to the “observer effect.” Instead, the reductions could have been in large part dependent on myriad local factors which would not be present in other contexts, or other reforms to the legal system or police practice which were implemented around the same time.

However, because law enforcement is so decentralized, we can expect that the specific policies, training and equipment being deployed will vary wildly from one context to another as more-and-more precincts adopt body cameras. This ad-hoc approach will likely wash away many of the *extra* factors which contributed to the success of the cameras in the precincts surveyed by the DoJ.

But even if we sidestep these concerns, there will be enormous problems “scaling up” the successes cited in the DoJ report.

One big challenge will be cost: the infrastructure, training and devices themselves easily run into the hundreds-of-thousands of dollars per department. This greatly will prohibit how widely they are used—both in terms of the number of precincts who adopt them at all, and the percentage of officers within a given precinct who will be equipped with the cameras. Where they are utilized, the funding will often be raised through cuts to other government services and programs—or else, by increasing revenues through more widespread citations, which can be devastating to many who are already impoverished.

Moreover, it will be a major logistical challenge to store the massive quantities of footage recorded per diem, and to organize it in a way where it can be effectively retrieved as needed. It will be absolutely critical to get this right:

Insofar as people feel that even though they are being recorded, no one will ever really watch the footage—the observer effect is diminished. Similarly, if there are little-to-no consequences for “accidentally” forgetting to turn the camera on, for inexplicable “malfunctions” during violent encounters, or if critical footage mysteriously “disappears” from the server—we can expect the cameras to make a much smaller impact on a precinct’s behavior. If cops do not face charges, or are not convicted, despite violations being caught on camera, their sense of impunity will be further exacerbated rather than undermined.

All of these are, regrettably, extremely plausible outcomes in many areas.

In short, we can expect that the efficacy of the body cameras overall will be significantly less than the initial DoJ findings as more precincts adopt them. And this efficacy may diminish even further over time, depending on how the devices and their footage are utilized in various contexts. So it goes with any technological solution to sociological problems.

Will body cameras prove to be an important component in reducing unnecessary violence in many circumstances? Almost certainly. Are they going to single-handedly prevent or avenge most police killings, as their most passionate advocates suggest? Almost certainly not.

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