After the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent uprising in Ferguson, Mo., police departments across the country underwent massive campaigns to integrate bodycam technology into their cache of crime-fighting equipment. Or maybe it was after Freddie Gray died in Baltimore. Perhaps it was after Walter Scott was gunned down in North Charleston, S.C. Or maybe it was Tamir Rice. Or Eric Garner. Or ...
OK, it’s hard to pinpoint when it happened, but at some point, everyone simply accepted the idea that police-worn body cameras were the answer to police brutality. According to the simple logic, if police knew that their every move was being recorded for posterity, they would be less likely to engage in corrupt or unscrupulous activities. Police departments everywhere believed in the idea so much that, by January 2016, 95 percent of local law enforcement agencies were using or planned to implement “body-worn camera” technology.
Most people thought that police video would change the behavior that causes three times more black men to be killed by law enforcement officers than their white counterparts. They believed that BWCs would reduce the racial inequality in police brutality, especially after a study using Washington Post data proved that there is no relationship between crime rates by race and the disproportionate police killings of black people. “The only thing that was significant in predicting whether someone shot and killed by police was unarmed was whether or not they were black,” said Justin Nix, a criminal-justice researcher.
Everyone assumed that BWCs were the cure. But you know what they say about the word “assume”: It makes an ass out of ... wait. I think I’m being pulled over by the cops. I assume I’ll be fine.
Two years ago, the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department accepted the premise and began a program issuing bodycams to the District’s law enforcement personnel. The MPD assumed that it would “benefit the District by improving police services, increasing accountability for individual interactions, and strengthening police-community relations. The cameras might encourage positive behavioral change and the video footage might be useful as evidence.”
Not only did D.C. outfit its cops with the technology, but it teamed up with The Lab @ DC, a team of research scientists in D.C.’s Office of the City Administrator, to conduct a “rigorous field experiment” to see if the cameras achieved the goals for which they were intended.
Beginning in June 2015, the MPD began randomly issuing cameras to officers. By December 2016, it had issued cameras to every officer in the city. It studied the differences in crime, police behavior, judicial impact, use of force and civilian complaints against officers. The department tracked the results of cops who wore cameras and cops who didn’t. It looked at the crime rates and the conviction rates. Then the researchers compiled all of the data between June 2015 and March 31, 2017.
Although the study (pdf) is still going on, when officials looked at the data, they discovered something very interesting: The benefits of body-worn police cameras are a myth.
Here’s what they found:
- Body-worn cameras had no effect on police behavior: The researchers postulated that BWCs would result in fewer tickets, misdemeanors and arrests for disorderly conduct because people knew they were being watched. It did not happen.
- Bodycams had no effect on police use of force: The incidence of police use of force before bodycams were deployed was the same as after.
- BWCs had no effect on civilian complaints: There was no statistical difference between the number of complaints filed against cops who wore bodycams and those who didn’t.
- Cameras don’t matter in court: The bodycams did not change how many people entered guilty pleas, how many people were found guilty or how many cases were dropped.
In every single quantifiable category, with almost two years of research and thousands of officers wearing cameras in the capital of the United States, bodycams didn’t make people safer or less likely to be victims of police brutality or even change behavior. Even in their unusually large sample size, the researchers concluded that “body-worn cameras may have great utility in specific policing scenarios, but we cannot conclude from this experiment that they can be expected to produce large, department-wide improvements in outcomes.”
What does this mean?
Some people will interpret the results to mean that BWCs prove that cops aren’t corrupt. They will say that if the number of police-brutality cases and civilian complaints didn’t drop or rise, this must prove that police officers were doing their jobs correctly all along.
Except that they still kill more black people. Except that cops in Baltimore were caught planting drugs on people again and again and again. Except that officers in Albuquerque, N.M., had a system of erasing police footage. And except for the video capturing the 16 bullets that killed Laquan McDonald. And the Philando Castile Facebook footage. And the footage of Daniel Shaver’s slaughter. And the bodycam footage of Patrick Harmon’s execution.
The research shows that police-worn cameras don’t change a damn thing. They are a make-believe solution to a real problem. They are a placebo. They are supposed to eliminate crime, spawn justice and make us safe, but they don’t do much. They only make us feel secure.
Just like police.
Read the study here (pdf).