Colleagues: This is the first police body camera evaluation offered by the Department of Justice’s Crime Solutions.Gov.
Evidence Rating: Promising – One study
Date: This profile was posted on November 28, 2016
This program equips individual police officers with body-worn cameras to record police encounters during shifts. The program aims to reduce use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints by increasing mutual accountability. The program is rated Promising. There was a significant reduction in police use-of-force, but no significant difference in citizens’ complaints.
There are a number of reasons for police to use body-worn cameras. One is to help in the gathering of evidence and accurate reporting of events. Another objective is to encourage mutual accountability during difficult police–citizen encounters. The objective of having police use body-worn cameras is to reduce the number of use-of-force incidents and reduce the number of complaints from the community by monitoring all police–citizen encounters.
One jurisdiction that has adopted the use of body-worn cameras is Rialto, California. The Rialto Police Department serves a population of approximately 100,000 residents, and employs 115 sworn police officers and 42 non-sworn staff. The devices used in Rialto are small enough to fit into the officers’ shirt pockets; they also provide high-definition color video and audio, are water resistant, and have a battery life greater than 12 hours. Police are instructed to use these cameras for every police interaction with the public, except in cases of sexual assault of a minor or when dealing with police informants. The devices are visible to the citizens who are interacting with the officers. All the data are automatically uploaded, collated, and inventoried in a web-based, video-management system at the end of each shift.
The theoretical foundation for the use of body-worn cameras and their effects on reducing problem behaviors is rooted in deterrence theory and social surveillance. With regard to deterrence theory, as the certainty of detection or apprehension for wrongdoing is perceived to increase, the incidence of such behavior should decrease. Body-worn cameras should therefore increase people’s perceptions of the risk of detection or apprehension because their actions will be caught on camera (this applies to the behavior of both suspects and police).
Additionally, with social surveillance, research suggests that people will adhere to social norms and change their conduct when they are aware that someone else is watching. When people are aware that their actions are being monitored, they are more likely to behave in a socially acceptable manner in an effort to avoid the negative outcomes associated with being caught breaking rules. The body-worn cameras may have a “self-awareness effect”, which could impact both suspects and police. Suspects would be less likely to act aggressively in a situation, and police officers would be less likely to react with excessive or unnecessary force ((Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland 2015).
During the study period Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland (2015) recorded a total of 25 incidents of police use-of-force, with 17 occurring during the control shifts and only 8 during the experimental shifts. The mean rate of use-of-force was 0.33 incidents per 1,000 police–public contacts in the experimental condition, compared with a rate of 0.78 per 1,000 contacts in the control condition (a significant difference).
Although the use-of-force rate was significantly lower for the experimental condition, the probability of an incident was very low in both conditions. Overall, use-of-force rate was significantly reduced by more than half for the entire department, compared with previous years.
While the low number of incidences led to no significant differences between the groups, the results showed that the department-wide numbers of citizen complaints were reduced tenfold, compared with previous years.
Every frontline officer in the Rialto Police Department took part in the experiment (n = 54), although the study authors used shifts as the unit of analysis and randomization. Each 12-hour shift consisted of roughly 10 armed frontline officers patrolling the streets of Rialto, responding to calls for service, and interacting with the public.
Beginning in February 2012, and lasting a year, the study consisted of randomly assigning all shifts on a weekly basis to either an experimental or control condition. In the experimental shifts, officers were required to wear a high-definition, video- recording apparatus fitted to their collar, which would record all of their activities during the shift. Although the device would be visible to citizens interacting with the officers, the police also informed anyone they interacted with that they were being videotaped. A total of 988 shifts were randomly assigned during the 1-year study, resulting in 489 experimental shifts and 499 control shifts, which were patrol shifts “as usual”. The researchers measured the contacts between the police and the public in every shift for all non-casual encounters (calls for service, collecting evidence and statements, formally advising individuals, etc.), which allowed them to compute incident rates per 1,000 police–public encounters.
The devices used in the experimental condition were small enough to fit into the officers’ shirt pockets, and provided high- definition color video and audio, were water resistant, and had a battery life greater than 12 hours. The officers were instructed to use the devices for every police interaction with the public, except for those involving cases of sexual assault of a minor or when dealing with police informants. All the data was automatically uploaded, collated, and inventoried in a web-based, video-management system at the end of each shift, and was available to the researchers.
One of the two outcomes of interest was use-of-force. The Rialto Police Department uses a standardized tracking system that records instances of use-of-force that are beyond basic control and compliance holds, including the use of pepper spray, a baton, a Taser, a canine bite, or a firearm. For the purposes of this study, the researchers operationalized use-of-force as whether or not force was used during a given shift. Use-of-force was counted only as instances of force, and not the degree of force used, the length of that use, or who instigated the use-of-force.
The second outcome of interest was citizen complaints against officers. These data were tracked by the Rialto Police Department through software that records citizens’ complaints of alleged police misconduct or poor performance. The researchers used these data to count the number of complaints of any type filed against officers.