Body Cameras

Body-Worn Cop Cameras Reduce Citizen Complaints by 93 Percent

The evidence is in: All police should wear cameras.



Police and citizens tend to behave a lot better when they know that their actions are being recorded on video. This insight is bolstered by a fascinating new study, "Contagious Accountability" in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior. Researchers at Cambridge University persuaded seven different police departments in the U.K. and the U.S. to randomly assign 2,000 officers to don body-worn cameras (BWC) that recorded for their entire shifts. The experiment took place over a year and then the researchers compared the number complaints against officers from the preceding with those lodged during the year that cameras were being worn. The researchers report, "Across the seven experimental sites, 1,539 complaints were lodged against police officers in the 12 months preceding the study, or 1.20 complaints per officer. The number of complaints lodged against the police then dropped in the posttreatment period to 113, or 0.08 complaints per officer. This marks an overall reduction of 93% in the incidence of complaints."

One model considered for how the presence of cameras might change behavior:

BWC + verbal warning ? officer's starting point for the interaction is cooler + suspect's demeanor "cooler" ? officers less likely to react aggressively ? fewer complaints than without BWCs.

Cameras evidently deter both frivolous complaints and excessive police agression. In addition, the researchers found that cameras actually changed the behavior of officers more than that of citizens during encounters. Recall that officers were randomly assigned cameras at every shift and still complaints against police dropped even when individual officers were not wearing them. As the lead researcher Barak Ariel suggested to the BBC, this occurred "because good practice and changes in policing culture were becoming embedded across each force as it adapted to the use of cameras—a phenomenon he described as "contagious accountability."

While it is clear that all police should wear cameras, it is critical that departments adopt transparent and accountable policies with regard to when video should be released to the public and for how long video should be retained.

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  1. We just need to make sure they cant be turned off.

    1. I want to be optimistic, but I have a feeling video will always be available when it helps police and “lost” when it doesn’t.

      1. Then enshrine it in law that when there should be video, and isn’t, the party who had custody of the video must be doubted.

    2. That’s the key point that ron failed to mention. A previous study showed an increase in use of force when cops were allowed to control the recordings.

  2. We can make it like a COPS! network. All on duty body cams are live streaming 100% of the time.

    1. “Now, when I open this trunk, am I gonna find any contraband of any kind?”

      “No, sir.”

      [opens door, finds contraband]

      “This isn’t my car.”

    2. I’d prefer the relevant videos get shown if there ends up being a court proceeding – eg, either the cop or the suspect getting prosecuted. Then any footage relevant to the alleged incident(s) would be shown.

      As for people dying at the hands of police, my suggestion of automatic public hearings by inquest juries would address the public’s need to see the footage. Since traditionally, empaneling an inquest jury doesn’t take very long compared to other judicial proceedings, then the footage goes public fairly rapidly under my idea.

      As to releasing all the footage all the time, I’m not so sure.

      1. I was being a bit silly, there are problems with it, of course.

      2. The public is the sovoreign, the public pays the police, the public pays for the cameras. Therefore the video is public property, and if making it available causes the government trouble, let the goddamned government adjust. We do not work for them, those motherfuckers work for us.

      3. I think the best way would be to live-stream the video. All of it – even that of the ‘secret’ 5 am raids from leaving the station to returning to it. If your target is watching the feeds at 4 in the morning then maybe you were on to something with the SWAT team. If he wasn’t, then knock-and-wait probably would have been perfectly acceptable.

        And, as they remind us, its all public anyway.

  3. I would think “Cameras evidently deter [….] frivolous complaints” would be a very big selling point to most police officers. Think of all the time, money and heartache that would be saved. I think a similar thing should happen with all corrective officers.

    Then accountability might be feasible, as we sort of have to discount 95% of complaints. Is an officer with 11 complaints over 7 years good or bad? Currently, we really don’t know.

    1. It might be a big selling point to good officers. It’s a red flag to Police union officials, whose business (face it) is defending the indefensible.

    2. Except frivolous complaints have never been a problem for LEOs before. In fact, neither have non-frivolous complaints.

      The process is typically for the desk officers to harrass the complaintant, if they persist then allow them to provide a written complaint – make sure to emphasize that you need that person’s name phone number and *home address*, and then ship it off to IA where it gets ignored for two months and then comes back stamped ‘unsubstantiated’.

  4. Body cam footage also led to the quick arrest of two law enforcement officers in the shooting death of a child. So let’s not pretend public recordings are anywhere close to a net positive for your average police officer.

    1. You are assuming the average police officer are like these. I think these two are outliers.

      1. Any of them have the possibility of having to use force. The deference their actions were once shown is slipping away and they have to see that. Cops can put themselves in the shoes of these two much more easily than they can those of the victims.

  5. Is this why BLM is against them?

    1. Organization for Black Struggle, the Black Lives Matter network, and others have made both clear and public a list of demands. Those demands include swift and transparent legal investigation of all police shootings of black people; official governmental tracking of the number of citizens killed by police, disaggregated by race; the demilitarization of local police forces; and community accountability mechanisms for rogue police officers. Some proposals like the recently launched Campaign Zero by a group of Ferguson activists call for body cameras on every police officer. But other groups are more reticent about this solution, since it would lead to increased surveillance and possible invasions of privacy, not to mention a massive governmental database of information about communities of color that are already heavily under surveillance by government forces.

      1. And the Movement for Black Lives:

        “An end to the mass surveillance of Black communities, and the end to the use of technologies that criminalize and target our communities (including IMSI catchers, drones, body cameras, and predictive policing software).”

        1. Movement for black lives? They’re splitters.

          1. I don’t know if we’re joking or not here. Isn’t it like 50 groups under the name?

            1. Life of Brian joke. The text I posted is from the BLM website. Some groups under BLM are for cameras and some aren’t. So it’s not really accurate to say BLM opposes body cams. It is accurate to say some groups associated with BLM are against body cams.

              1. “So it’s not really accurate to say BLM opposes body cams. It is accurate to say some groups associated with BLM are against body cams.”

                Very true but it just seems like unnecessary needling.

  6. At some point, I’d think that recruiting for higher crime areas might become an issue.

    1. I also have to question how seniority works in that regard. Are PD’s putting more rookies in higher crime areas because senior officers don’t want those assignments? And is this a reason we see more “incidents” in high crime areas?

  7. I agree with the statement “All police should wear cameras,” just like I agree with the statement “all people should not smoke tobacco.”

    However, the current debate as it pertains to the 2016 election is more about the statement “federal law should require all police to wear cameras.”

    I don’t support the U.S. government making laws outside its jurisdiction, whether their effects are good or bad.

    1. This article makes absolutely no mention of the 2016 election or Federal law, and “the current debate” has been going on full force since before the last Federal election, entirely at the state and local level with only comments (and, I’ll admit, some funding, which indeed one might oppose like all inappropriate Federal funding) on the matter from the President.
      So no, this article has about as little to do with Federalism as the articles on stadium funding or eminent domain do. You might take any article and turn it into a contemplation of hypothetical action on the Federal level, but that is not particularly germaine to the original article.
      The statement “all police should wear cameras” has absolutely nothing to do with the statement “all people should not smoke tobacco” in any relevant sense. The former might be inappropriate for the Federal government to enforce against localities because it is “outside its jurisdiction,” but the latter is inappropriate for any government to enforce against its citizens because smoking is a natural right of man. […]

      1. […] As for Federalism, it is only instrumentally related to libertarianism per se. It’s probably of more significance that Federal authority happens to be limited vis a vis the states (and thus adherence to its constitution, a reasonable minarchist desideratum, would depend on it) than that there would be any inherent libertarian advantage to subsidiarity. It’s especially unfortunate that a friendly person should confuse the concept of limited government vis a vis its citizens with that of subsidiarity, given the amount of smug, sloppy prog rhetoric on the matter. Recently an article on Slate about how cities were struggling under the fascistic boot of Republican statehouse “preemption” of their efforts to control every aspect of their residents’ lives set off much smug mockery of the hypocrisy of “small government conservatives.” It was like talking to a brick wall to suggest anything else.

  8. I saw this study the other day, and I kept wondering if it reduces the ‘frivolous complaints’ or because the officer is in a way the one being recorded that his aggression is considerably more neutered, reducing the NEED for said “frivolous complaints”.

    1. Why not both?

      1. I wasn’t very clear in my post. I’m sure it does both, but I’m wondering if a percentage of those complaints that were deemed frivolous weren’t actually frivolous because now there’s an actual video of the encounter.

  9. Alt-alt-text: “Its not really even a game. I mean all you do is walk around to where they are and then point the camera and flick the screen and on to the next one.”

  10. You know what else reduces citizen complaints? Not making every little thing under the Sun a fucking crime. I’m looking at you War on Drugs!

  11. I am an Italian kid from Long Island and grew up with mostly other Italian and Irish kids. So a lot of my schoolmates became cops. They are all descent people and I think they all would do the right thing in a bad situation.

    And that is a big reason why I support some sort of body cams for cops. I think if they were accused of something, the body cam would vindicate them. I remember during the Ferguson period, there was a situation where two NYC cops were accused of shooting a surrendering suspect. But a camera (I forgot if it was a body cam or just an ordinary security camera) showed that they shot the guy while he was armed and threating people.

    There will need to be checks on this of course — protections for privacy as well as transparency. But I fail to see a down side.

  12. Was there a cost savings associated with the drop in complaints?
    One would imagine that the man hours spend investigating complaints could be substantial, and possibly allowing more officers for patrol duties instead of paperwork.

  13. I’ve long been a critic of police brutality and killings but with the current media bs with BLM I’m rooting for the police. Of course that’s no accident on the BLM side. They want division and chaos. That’s why in the main they just protest killings of thugs. Truly innocent people like that dude a couple of weeks ago who was shot by a freaked out cop after announcing he was concealed carrying barely make a blip with these tools. You noticed the coverage of that guys death disappeared after a few days while we still hear about the ‘gentle giant’.

    The BLM can be viewed as the political arm of the Black Panthers. Their goals are the same, a race war but much like the Sinn F?in political party in Ireland the BLM tries to legitimize their racism and violence.

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