Body Cameras Reduce Complaints About Police

Thursday, October 06, 2016

TechCrunch reports 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."

The researchers dub this effect "contagious accountability" -- learning to do the right thing even when no one is watching. [bold added]
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:
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?

-- CAV

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I'm one of those who tends to look at police conduct with a jaded eye. This is a result of personal encounters with police and extensive following up on stories of police misconduct.

Now I was not always of this mindset. My grandfather was a deputy sheriff in Montana during the latter part of Prohibition; when I was young, the leader of the lay clergy in my church was the top man in the State Police and my sister dated the guy who is now in the same job.

These men, to the best of my knowledge, were honorable folks. But I hope that they would be appalled at what passes for proper police conduct today.

The telling thing about the videos above is that they captured things that cops routinely do. A friend of mine who is a cop indicated that, absent an existing criminal record, if you see some first-timer in the 'justice' system charged with resisting arrest, refusing to obey commands, attempting to evade, etc., the chances are pretty good that the cop didn't like his attitude and is turning him over to the tender mercies of the 'justice' system. One of the favorite sayings of cops nationwide is, "You might beat the rap, but you won't beat the ride." *

Also telling about the above videos is the fact, that despite a conspiracy to falsify criminal charges against a citizen, none of these officers were indicted for the crimes they actually committed.

As a business owner who was targeted by a local sheriff/cop combo who attempted to intimidate me, under the threat of being charged with 'obstruction of justice', into committing a federal felony, I have a very jaundiced view of cops in general; the more so because you very rarely see cops doing the right thing about the crimes committed by their 'brother officers'. Until I see a sea-change in that aspect of police culture, I will take, with a large grain of salt, the police apologia that follow upon police misconduct of any kind.

To me, the tragedy of the BLM movement is that, by denying the serious problems that are rife within the black community, they provide unwitting cover for those who use those evasions to cover for the serious misconduct and criminal conduct issues that are extant within police culture in the United States.

c andrew

* An acquaintance of mine had his life destroyed by 'the ride'. They arrested his wife for DUI because she was unable to follow the officer's pen movement side to side without moving her head, even though she blew 0% on the breathalyzer. He was explaining to the cop that his wife had Bell's Palsy which is why she didn't have the capacity for independent eye movement. He was arrested for 'obstruction'. By the time they got out of jail, they had both lost their jobs. He filed a formal complaint and was treated to cops coming by his trailer house every night and 'spotlighting' it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gus,

I think that I agree with the conclusion that they came to on the effect of cameras on police conduct. One of the reasons for this is the work done by this fellow, a former policeman.

He did a hidden camera segment for Dateline back in the 1990s which I recently ran across as I was converting my VHS tapes to digital format.

In one instance, his hidden camera guy went into a branch of the Hollywood Sheriff's office and asked for a complaint form. Then-current California law required LEOs to provide the form without question or comment. This deputy did not do so; he aggressively questioned the requestor, threatened him with 'a ride downtown to the medical ward' and ended up his tirade by coming out to the foyer area and smashing the requestor face down into the counter. All of this was caught, POV, on the hidden camera.

When his associate came in with a visible camera, the deputy then lied about every single thing that had occurred. When Dateline released their video, in a later followup, we were informed that the deputy had been given a different job and 3 days of 'training'.

Now tell me, given the evidence, why wasn't this deputy prosecuted for assault under color of law and for violating existing California code?

I think that the largest effect of police body cams will be on the conduct of the police officers themselves. The bonus is that if they are conducting themselves properly, then they will be vindicated as they should be.

If the police are upset about public perception of their probity, then maybe they should be looking to their own conduct and their own tolerance of the misconduct of their fellow officers.

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for your comments, which, as always, have greatly added to the value of my post. You give good reasons to consider the idea that the cameras might help with a problem with law enforcement behavior.

I particularly agree with the following:

"To me, the tragedy of the BLM movement is that, by denying the serious problems that are rife within the black community, they provide unwitting cover for those who use those evasions to cover for the serious misconduct and criminal conduct issues that are extant within police culture in the United States."