Thursday, October 06, 2016
on a study about the impact of body cameras worn by policemen on
complaints against officers. I found the interpretation almost as
interesting as the data, which showed a 93 per cent reduction in
complaints across the board, when only some officers wore the cameras.
"It may be that, by repeated exposure to the surveillance of the cameras, officers changed their reactive behaviour on the streets -- changes that proved more effective and so stuck," explained the study's lead author, Barak Ariel, in a Cambridge news release. "With a complaints reduction of nearly 100 percent across the board, we find it difficult to consider alternatives, to be honest."I can see body cameras having such an effect, but I don't find it difficult to consider "alternative" (i.e., alternative or additional) explanations: Perhaps, once word got out that officers might have body cameras, complaints dropped because many of them are malarkey to begin with. At least the TechCrunch reporter seems to realize that there could be "alternative" explanations:
The researchers dub this effect "contagious accountability" -- learning to do the right thing even when no one is watching. [bold added]
Specifics on how exactly this is happening are unclear. Is the officer less confrontational to begin with, avoiding escalation? Or are suspects and complainants more wary of their conduct? Is it some combination of the two, or are even more factors involved? To determine these things would be a far more complex and subtle piece of research, but the study does suggest that officer behavior is probably the most affected, and that other effects flow from that. [bold added]I tend to agree that the effect is likely due to a combination of factors, but am amazed at the degree of cynicism on display here, particularly about the actions of police officers. The academy and the press are rife with this attitude, which ought at least to be matched by suspicion about the motives and behavior of criminals. In this case, why wouldn't a criminal lodge a false complaint, especially if he thought (a) it might get his case thrown out and (b) he could easily get away with it?
P.S. In the vein of considering multifactorial causes to the Ferguson Effect, I will note a recent article by the New York Times that describes a hesitance to call the police after "police violence rips apart the social contract between the criminal justice system and the citizenry."
That possibility bears consideration on top of the possibility the Times argues against, but here's another: Newspapers bear the blame when, as in the Michael Brown case, they so carelessly misreport an incident involving an actual criminal as to have effectively fabricated police violence out of thin air, thereby sowing distrust of the police. Somehow, though, I don't see the the Times or other, similar outlets, racing to be the first to break that story. This is doubly unfortunate, because it makes all of us less safe, and weakens any real case for police reform by discrediting the whole idea.