Police Officers Wearing Body Cameras Essay Contest

Police use of force has been heavily scrutinized for more than a year after fatal police encounters with unarmed black men in New York City, Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and other parts of the U.S. The increased attention has renewed calls for law-enforcement officers to wear video cameras while on duty. Supporters say the devices are needed to provide transparency, build public trust and provide evidence against false complaints. But as more law-enforcement agencies begin using them, questions emerge as to when they should be turned on and off and how much footage should be made available to the public.

In May 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it was providing $20 million in grants to help local and tribal agencies purchase and learn to use body cameras. The grants are part of President Obama’s plan to spend $75 million over three years to buy 50,000 “bod cams” for police organizations. Despite the national push, local law enforcement remains divided over the use of such technology, with some agencies blatantly resisting. Some of the agencies that have tried using them, however, are reporting decreased use of force and fewer complaints from residents. In San Diego, for example, a 2015 report based on preliminary statistics showed that body cameras helped reduce “personal body” force by officers by 46.5%.

A September 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology used a controlled experiment with the Mesa Police Department in Arizona to determine how body cameras influence police-citizen interactions. For the report, entitled “The Impact of On-officer Video Cameras on Police-Citizen Contacts: Findings from a Controlled Experiment in Mesa, AZ,” Justin Ready and Jacob Young of Arizona State University analyzed 3,698 field reports completed by 100 sworn patrol officers. The officers — half were assigned to wear body cameras — filled out the reports after having contact with members of the public between Nov. 1, 2012 and Oct. 1, 2013.

Key findings:

  • Officers who did not wear body cameras conducted more “stop-and-frisks” and made more arrests than officers who wore the video cameras. Officers who did not wear cameras performed 9.8% more stop-and-frisks and made 6.9% more arrests.
  • Officers assigned to wear cameras issued 23.1% more citations for ordinance violations than those who did not wear cameras.
  • Officers with body cameras initiated 13.5% more interactions with citizens than those who did not wear them.
  • Officers wearing cameras were 25.2% more likely to perceive the devices as being helpful during their interactions with the public.
  • The cameras did not have a significant impact on whether or not officers gave verbal warnings to citizens.

The study indicates that police officers were more cautious and risk averse when wearing body cameras. The authors suggest that the reason that camera-wearing officers may have made fewer arrests and conducted fewer stop-and-frisks was because they thought more carefully about criminal policy and procedures. With video evidence, there is the potential for greater scrutiny by supervisors or members of the public. The researchers note that a possible reason why officers with cameras wrote more citations was because they were worried they might be reprimanded for not issuing tickets when video evidence showed that a citizen had violated an ordinance or traffic law. Ready and Young’s work offers insights that they think will be useful to law enforcement agencies as they decide whether to use this technology. “Police executives may support new technology that brings greater accountability and less civil liability, but line officers focus on how it may limit their use of discretion in the field,” the authors state. “Empirical support showing that OVCs [On-officer Video Cameras] can help departments achieve their goals will reduce the time needed for this technology to gain legitimacy. Our findings represent a preliminary step in that direction.”

Related research: A 2014 study from the U.S. Department of Justice, “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence,” offers a review of research on the costs and benefits of body cameras. A 2010 study conducted by some of the nation’s leading criminal justice scholars, “A Multi-method Evaluation of Police Use of Force Outcomes: Final Report to the National Institute of Justice,” provides an overall summary of police use-of-force issues. A 2014 report in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, “The Law and Social Science of Stop and Frisk,” surveys recent scholarship on the effectiveness of police stop-and-frisk tactics.


Keywords: police brutality, excessive force, body cameras, body cams, body-worn cameras, technology, policing, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Freedom of Information, public records

Citation: Ready, Justin; Young, Jacob. "The Impact of On-officer Video Cameras on Police–citizen Contacts: Findings from a Controlled Experiment 
in Mesa, AZ." Journal of Experimental Criminology, June 2015. doi: 10.1007/s11292-015-9237-8.

Criminal Justice, Culture, Municipal, Racecrime, local reporting, policing, technology

Body cameras have become a mainstay in policing since a federal judge in Manhattan ordered the Police Department to test them as a way to curb unwarranted stops and searches of black and Latino men, so-called stop-and-frisk tactics that she ruled unconstitutional in August 2013. The devices have been pitched with the promise of increasing police transparency and accountability. Although an emerging body of research has suggested that they are helpful to those ends, the results are considered inconclusive.

Police officials in New York say the program is designed to be the most rigorous scientific study of the effects of body cameras so far. About 1,200 officers working the evening shift in 20 precincts will be given the cameras as part of a study that will compare them with roughly the same number of officers in 20 similar precincts who will not wear the cameras. After a year, officials hope to report whether the cameras made a difference areas like officer performance, civilian complaints, crime levels and prosecutions.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to expand the program to all patrol officers by 2019 if he is re-elected in November. It is one of his biggest commitments, and one that he has been unequivocal that he will see through despite several obstacles: The city’s Investigation Department is looking into the Police Department’s awarding of the $6.4 million contract for the equipment; the plaintiffs in Floyd v. City of New York, the lawsuit that led to the program, oppose the policy that details when officers must use the cameras; and police unions representing supervisors also have concerns about the program.

While the mayor has high hopes, he has little control over the process. The court will determine whether the body camera program is working and could speed up or slow down its progress. Still, Mr. de Blasio sees the full rollout as inevitable.

“This is the shape of things to come,” he said at an April 10 event on Staten Island. “If anybody wants to challenge us, we can win that challenge, I am confident.”

The next day, the monitor who oversees stop-and-frisk changes in the Police Department approved the body camera policy and recommended that the program proceed. The plaintiffs’ lawyers objected the following week, asking Judge Analisa Torres to halt the program. But within 48 hours, she dismissed their request.

Although police unions have threatened to seek a restraining order, Judge Torres’s ruling casts doubt on the likelihood that they might be able to delay the program in court.

“We don’t foresee any issue with this,” said Terence A. Monahan, chief of patrol, responding to a question about a possible union challenge. “I’m ready to roll it out.”

Barring court intervention, the police officers at roll call on Thursday afternoon in the 34th Precinct in Upper Manhattan’s Washington Heights and Inwood neighborhoods will be the first to wear the cameras.

Washington Heights and Inwood, both Dominican enclaves, were once epicenters of the city’s violent drug epidemic. Bifurcated by Broadway, the area was considered so dangerous that the city created a new precinct — the 33rd — to help combat crime there.

As the city cracked down on the drug gangs that held sway there in the 1990s, crime plummeted, and the area began drawing professionals and young families. But the aggressive policing tactics outlasted the high-crime era and aggravated tensions between the Police Department and the predominantly black and Latino communities where enforcement was highest.

“That mistrust that exists between the two of them, that needs to be addressed,” Prof. Ramona Hernández, director of the Dominican Studies Institute at City University of New York, said on Monday. “So the cameras to me are a welcome tool to do this.”

Lawsuits like Floyd successfully challenged the stop-and-frisk practices, and the body camera pilot program is one of the remedies ordered by the court. The city dropped its appeal after Mr. de Blasio took office, and publicly embraced a neighborhood policing model that put the relationship between officers and city residents at the forefront of efforts to further reduce crime.

Whether the program will be successful largely depends on how the city carries it out, Professor Hernández said, echoing civil liberties lawyers and police reform advocates. Those groups raised concerns over the camera policy, which they said failed to ensure that the cameras would not be used to surveil vulnerable communities or to protect officers accused of misconduct or abuse.

Questions remain over how the administration will handle cases that involve officers wearing the cameras. The Police Department already refuses to say how officers who break the rules are disciplined, citing a state law that protects officers’ personnel records.

Residents in Washington Heights who say they have experienced unnecessary stops and searches expressed a mix of optimism and wariness that the cameras would improve their interactions with police officers.

Leaning against the side of a bodega on Broadway on Monday, Ozzie Peña, 28, recalled being stopped a handful of times since he was 16. Each time, he said, officers searched him before giving him a reason. Sometimes, he said, they left without giving a reason at all.

“It makes you look and feel like a common criminal, whoever you are,” Mr. Peña said.

Police body cameras are a good idea that will encourage officers to follow the rules, he said — “Hopefully.”

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