Body-worn cameras: Why everything you know is wrong

Two studies recently challenged the popular narrative about police bodycams; here’s what cops and their communities need to know

The title of this article isn’t directed at the typical police officer, who inherently knows what I’m about to say, even if you don’t know you know it (this will become slightly less complicated if you bear with me). This advice is directed at the typical non-police officer, who seldom understands what police work is like.

The first study

The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) commissioned a study on the effect of body-worn cameras (BWCs) on arrests, prosecutions, convictions, use of force and misconduct complaints against officers.

In this Thursday, March 12, 2015, file photo, Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses, part of a pilot program testing the cameras, as she talks with a local citizen before a small community gathering in Seattle.
In this Thursday, March 12, 2015, file photo, Seattle police officer Debra Pelich wears a video camera on her eyeglasses, part of a pilot program testing the cameras, as she talks with a local citizen before a small community gathering in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

A randomly selected sample of cops with BWCs was compared against those without cameras. The researchers tried to control for roughly equal representation in each group of officers in regard to gender, age, experience, shifts and areas worked, and other relevant factors. The idea was to make the BWCs the only significant difference between the groups.

Conventional wisdom – that is, the wisdom of people who aren’t cops – predicted that the cops with the cameras would make fewer arrests, use force less often, enjoy a higher rate of prosecutions and convictions, and sustain fewer misconduct complaints.

That mostly didn’t happen.

The numbers did vary, with increases in some groups and decreases in others in every category measured. However, the ups and downs more or less evened out, so that there was no statistical difference between the groups overall. Whoever argued for funding this experiment is about to experience a career plateau.

What we already knew about body-worn cameras

The researchers could have saved some bucks and just asked working cops how bodycams are working. They might have heard the following:

  • BWCs are great for evidence collection and documenting what happens.
  • They’re especially handy when a citizen accuses a cop of misconduct. Most of the BWC output in these cases vindicates the cops. The ones that didn’t were from cops who messed up when they knew a camera was running, so they’re probably too stupid to be cops, anyway.
  • Citizens often don’t notice BWCs and, when they do, they don’t act any differently. If they’re going to fight with or run from a cop, they don’t care if he has a camera.
  • Cops respond to the same calls, and the same types of calls, with or without a camera. They encounter the same people, and face the same hazards. These hazards include drug and alcohol intoxication, mental illness, chronic hostility to the police, resistive or combative behavior, and filing false complaints of police misconduct.
  • Most cops know their jobs, know the limits of their authority, and conduct themselves honorably and professionally, whether they’re wearing a camera or not.

If you know these things to be true, then you shouldn’t be too surprised at the outcomes of the study.

Someone is always going to be unhappy – the second study

One of my mentors told me early in my police career, “If you want to be loved, join the fire department.” This is as true today as it was 40 years ago. Policing is necessary, and it’s all but impossible to pull it off without offending someone.

Two organizations called “The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights,” and “Upturn” (this appears to have been a joint effort) released in November 2017 a “policy scorecard” on police BWCs.

The two groups examined the BWC policies at 75 U.S. law enforcement agencies, assigning a score to each one. The score is determined by how closely the police policy follows the one the Leadership Conference/Upturn thinks it should have.

The document is 303 pages long and a 27 MB download, so I hope they’re not expecting everyone is going to go over it closely.

One of their criteria stood out to me: a requirement that officers not be permitted to see any relevant BWC footage until after they have completed their incident reports.

This strikes me as nothing more than an attempt to play “gotcha.” Police officers are trained to produce incident reports that are as objective and unbiased as they can manage. Conscientious cops will take contemporaneous notes, dictate onto pocket recorders, and review any other information source available to them before they start to write so as to ensure their report is as accurate as possible. It only makes sense that they would review any relevant video as a part of this process.

Anyone who has had to create after-the-fact reports on incidents they have witnessed knows that memory is a fickle thing. You can be absolutely sure that you saw X happen right before Y, and later find out you were completely wrong. A report with such an error in it is not a lie. It is an unintended misstatement, a mistake.

One of the myths anti-police organizations wish to perpetuate is that cops routinely falsify reports and “testi-lie” in court. When an officer who is compelled to write a report before reviewing his BWC video makes a mistake and says something that turns out to be inaccurate, he’s not going to be credited for making a mistake. He’s going to be accused of a deliberate lie, because, see, we told you they do that all the time.

I’m hoping that chiefs and sheriffs who read this report stick to their guns and give their officers every advantage that BWC evidence provides. This can lead only to more accurate report writing and improved police credibility, even if the result opposes the popular narrative.

The love/hate cycle in policing

There is a historic cycle in policing every 25-30 years. At one boundary of the cycle, policing is respected and considered an honorable profession. At the other, police are denigrated and condemned for everything they do.

In my lifetime, the negative boundary peaked in the 1960s with the civil unrest and generally anti-government sentiment that went with the unpopularity of the Vietnam War. The cycle’s positive curve peaked after 9/11, when cops were again held in high regard.

We’re now heading toward the low end of that cycle, with heavy distrust and loathing for law enforcement. The cycle’s period may have compressed, making the interval shorter, or the anti-police sentiment may still not have reached its extreme.

No matter where we are on the cycle, the cops keep answering the radio and handling the calls, and try to keep their ears above the noise level.

The value of BWCs

BWCs are a worthy investment. They are tremendous at creating a record and establishing evidence of what happens at a police incident.

When BWC video is available relevant to a complaint of misconduct, it often exonerates the officer and proves the complaint to be specious. However, they’re just a tool, and they aren’t going to revolutionize policing or police officers. They just make it a bit easier to tell the story of what happened.

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