Here's news that will shock you. Police cameras don't work. Or, to be more precise, they don't actually change police officers' behavior. This recent finding comes from a study performed in Washington, D.C., home to one of the largest forces in the U.S., including about 2,600 officers now wearing cameras on their shirts or collars. Done by the Metropolitan Police Department and researchers at The Lab @ DC, a city government group, the study was meant to coincide with the rollout of police cameras in the city from June 2015 to December 2016 . Researchers wanted to know whether the cameras, and the extra equipment and personnel needed to store and log their footage, were worth the expense.
Researchers found they "could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras." This is according to Anita Ravishankar, a fellow in The Lab @ DC and one of the researchers who conducted the study.
Chief of Police Peter Newsham shared this surprise, saying, “I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior. There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.”
But this, perhaps, is because the D.C. police had already changed.
Michael White, a researcher at Arizona State University who has studied body-warn camera programs explained, stating: “[The D.C. department is already] hiring the right people; they’ve got good training; they’ve got good supervision; they’ve got good accountability mechanisms in place. When you have a department in that kind of state, I don’t think you’re going to see large reductions in use of force and complaints, because you don’t need to. There is no large number of excessive uses of force that need to be eliminated.”
In other words, the reason why D.C. police officers didn’t change is because they probably already had. There was no need to alter their behavior when the cameras were introduced.
That’s not to say police cameras don’t have their uses. They can provide invaluable evidence for addressing disputed police interactions, especially in the event of a fatality, as Newsham acknowledges. “I think it’s really important for legitimacy for the police department when we say something to be able to back it up with a real-world view that others can see,” he said.
Still, police cameras aren’t the only cameras that have an impact on police work. Most of the footage showing police brutality has actually come from bystanders’ cell phone cameras. In the years since cell cameras were introduced, they’ve been invaluable in proving claims of police brutality.
As reporter Matt Taibbi put it in a Rolling Stone article from 2015, “In the past, before everyone above the age of 2 had a cell phone, the insultingly lame explanations of the police (“The gun just went off”; “The suspect suddenly took a swing at me”) were almost always swallowed whole, by juries and the media alike.”
Now, thanks to cell phone cameras, there’s evidence.