Accountability in the Digital Age: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Police Body Cameras

An officer wearing their Axon body camera; courtesy of the New York Times

It is no secret that America still has a police problem, and has had this problem for a long time now. Police Officers in the United States have long been known internationally to be overly violent, arrogant, and racist. This is a problem that we have all faced for decades upon decades. Even in popular media, it isn’t difficult to see some examples of this going back to the 1980s and ’70s; the image of a fat New York City officer bullying minorities is as iconic as the city itself from that time; and before that, to the corrupt officers working with the mob. It wasn’t until the infamous Rodney King incident in 1991 that the anger and outcry over this boiled over, however. The LA riots are legendary now, and the same can likely be said of the protests and unrest we’ve seen more recently. Organizations like BlackLivesMatter are controversial but do get the message across. They have been effective enough to cause progress to be made, to cause the conservative middle class to be uncomfortable and see what is happening, and have also caused hostile responses from other organizations; such as the “Blue Lives, Grey Lives, Green Lives Matter” signs.

Two armed Korean business-owners protecting their store from the rooftops during the LA Riots.
Military-trained Koreans defending their stores when the police would not help during the LA Riots https://imgur.com/gallery/I0aUV

But Rodney King was over 25 years ago now. Since then, there have been countless more occasions of beatings, unlawful deaths, and consequential outrage. So it only makes sense that additional measures be taken, like body cameras. A study back in 2013 of 500 police departments showed that only 1/4th of them had body cameras available for their officers, and most of those were small stations. That all changed after 2014, when Michael Brown was murdered in Ferguson, Missouri. Like King’s beating before him, Brown’s death sent shockwaves through the nation and spawned riots in the streets of Ferguson. The seemingly endless amounts of anger and outrage finally resulted in some action; millions of dollars in grants were issued to police departments so that they may integrate body cameras into their systems. Even still, not all stations have adopted body cameras, and some are even getting rid of their operations because they’re just too expensive to handle.

Riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the death of Michael Brown

Police body cameras can serve several purposes: they theoretically result in better civilian cooperation; people will behave nicely if they have a camera on them. Or they can be used as evidence in a court case, to back up often-times shaky eyewitness testimony. Unfortunately, for the most part, it instead is to hold police accountable for their actions; it has been shown time and time again that they can not always be trusted. But more and more, there have been arguments coming out of the woodworks against body cameras. The most obvious ones being concerns of privacy, as well as the amount of money required to both operate the cameras and store their vast swaths of data.

So then, what do we do? That is something difficult to answer, but an excellent place to start would be to evaluate body camera effectiveness so far. Departments around the country are still integrating them right now, but they’re becoming more commonplace every day. So, let’s take a look at the data we have right now and see if we can conclude something about body cameras: do they work?

Well, according to a New York Times article published in 2017, the short answer is they make no real difference. The Times base their report on a study performed on the Washington D.C. PD. For seven months, 1,000 officers were assigned cameras at random, and another thousand not. At the end of that seven months, in short, it was found that the cameras made no statistical change worth celebrating over. Officers with cameras behaved no differently, and had no more complaints than officers without cameras; the cameras in effect might as well of not existed.

Just this year, in 2019, the officer responsible with Eric Garner’s death was given a no federal charges decision

But we have seen other studies in the past that show they DO make a difference!

When you compare this to The Rialto Study from 2012: a report generated by the Rialto PD in California in partnership with Taser Int. (the makers of these cameras), and the University of Cambridge, things look very different. The Rialto Study is what convinced everybody that body cameras do make a difference; that they control police violence and protect the public. In Rialto, officers with cameras were more friendly with civilians, had fewer complaints, and were more efficient. There is a silver lining with the Rialto Study; however: it was conducted on just 54 officers, compared to Washingtons 1,000. When you compare this to the Washington D.C. study, it is on a much smaller scale. Washington captured five times more video, according to the Times. Besides, doesn’t this improvement in officer behavior say more about the Rialto PD and her officers rather than the cameras?

Of course, Washington’s results could also be circumstantial in some ways. For example: Washington D.C.’s police have already dealt with excessive force problems after The Washington Post ran a devastating piece on them in the late ’90s. Now, they have more accountability for their officers. It is not out of the question to suggest that Washington did not see significant changes with the cameras, because the Washington police are already doing their job better than some other districts. In any case, that should still not wholly discredit the Washington report; it was far more reliable than the Rialto Study in terms of sample size and data collected.

This image comes courtesy of mappingpoliceviolence.org, an organization that tracks police brutality in the US.
This image comes courtesy of mappingpoliceviolence.org, an organization which tracks police brutality in the U.S.

Unfortunately, body cameras are not going to be a perfect solution, but they are a step in the right direction. America has had this problem for a very long time, and some small cameras aren’t going to change that. There are still victims of police brutality despite the cameras, and that will persist for a long time. Body cameras may not be a fix-all solution, and they will need more time because frankly, we do not know how effective they are right now. They are just too new, and the data doesn’t make enough sense right now.

The next step and the crucial step is to hold police accountable for their actions; not just sending them on administrative leave, or a paid vacation, or worst of all, firing them. Right now, police discipline tends to be too lax. The officer who killed Eric Garner is not technically a murderer, but if you ask the majority of the public, he is. At the very least, he should have gotten something more than what he did, which was getting fired; if for no other reason than the fact that how he killed Garner was illegal. Cameras might give us proof that these terrible things are happening (that is when the police don’t try to hide the footage from the public), but it won’t prevent them entirely from happening.

It is going to be a long road ahead, and while the cameras may not be everything we’ve hoped they would be, it is a step. The next step is to stop treating police like they are above the law and to start treating the police like they are subject to the law.

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I talk about things that I love and things that annoy me, sometimes. Strong advocate for self-education and smoothies.

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Samuel David Jolicoeur

Samuel David Jolicoeur

I talk about things that I love and things that annoy me, sometimes. Strong advocate for self-education and smoothies.

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