Body-Worn Cameras Modify Criminal Suspect Behavior, Too

AXON Body - FrontTomorrow night, the Anaheim City Council will consider spending $1.25 million over five years or the purchase, maintenance, etc. of 250 body-worn video cameras for Anaheim police officers.

There will doubtless be a parade of the usual “cops are racist murderers” types who will exploit this item during public comments tomorrow night, and media coverage tends to reinforce the perception of body-worn video cameras as a means to keep the police in check. For example, both the OC Register and Voice of OC quote the finding of a Rialto Police Department study that a dramatic drop in use-of-force incidents followed the adoption of body-worn video camera – the inference being that the cameras cause police officers to refrain from actions.

However, it is criminal suspects who are in primary subjects of these video cameras. They know they are being recorded and their behavior changes accordingly. Since body-worn camera recordings are evidence that can be used against them, criminal suspects are far more likely to clam up and be on their best behavior and less likely to provoke the use of force. Consequently, it follows there will be fewer occasions in which the use of force is necessary. 

People behave better when they know they are being observed. Like anyone else, a police officer will likely be more cognizant of following rules of conduct when he/she is aware of being watched. For the vast majority of good, decent police, these cameras won’t pose a problem. If there are officers with self-control issues, the increased self-awareness induced by these systems will have a salutary effect  It stands to reason the same thing applies to criminal suspects. It also stands to reason that the decline in complaints against police cited in the Rialto study results from the potential complainant realizing the body-worn camera recording would invalidate the complaint.

As the study noted:

“Lastly, we cannot rule out the possibility that the cameras have (also) modified the behavior of those who interacted with the police. Members of the public with whom the officers communicated were also aware of being videotaped and therefore were likely to be cognizant that they ought to act cooperatively. However, we did not collect any evidence from these individuals to be able to ascertain this question. In spite of that, the psychological mechanisms ought to be substantially similar, though this is an avenue best explored experimentally in the future.”

If implemented with appropriate controls in place, adoption of the body-worn videos are unlikely to hamper the Anaheim Police Department’s anti-crime efforts, and will likely take the wind out of sails of the small but vocal group of protesters who believe the police are the “real gang” and the real threat to the public. 

My point is the Anaheim Police Department’s adoption of body-worn cameras provides a number of benefits for the Anaheim Police Department – not the least of which is inducing better behavior by criminal suspects. It shouldn’t be portrayed as a measure to protect the public from the police, and it would be a shame if the media and local activists portray it as such.

11 comments

  1. What happens when the gangbangers shoot at the camera and it stops recording?

    • Cops have turned off / disabled these cameras just before criminal acts against people as well. The neat thing is that you would have a clear record of the obstruction 🙂

  2. This is not about oversight, it is about corrupt crony spending at best, and intimidation 2.0 at worst. (See e-monitoring ankle bracelets). The cops can pull up to the scene around the corner (evading dash board cams), likewise they can fix body cams to suit them. But of course, where useful against the Defendant/suspect/target, the cop controlled cameras can be quite useful to intimidate and humiliate. Please say no City Council. This is an actually pretty depressing attempt to make a dime on a real pressing American problem. Sad…

  3. Body Cameras for Anaheim Police As Proposed Would Waste Taxpayers’ Money

    It would be a pharaonic waste of money to Anaheim taxpayers if the Anaheim City Council were to spend $1,250,000 to equip the city’s police officers with body cameras. Why? Because the same outcomes—fewer incidences of use of force and fewer citizen complaints against police officers—would just as likely occur if the Council does not equip each officer with a body camera.

    No substantive research that conforms to basic tenets of research design has been presented that demonstrates police equipped with body cameras account for decreasing the use of force or decreasing citizen complaints. The only research to date about this topic was conducted during a 12-month period in Rialto, California, during 2012-2013. (This study, “Self-awareness to being watched and socially-desirable behavior: A field experiment on the effect of body-worn cameras on police use-of-force,” can be downloaded from http://tinyurl.com/kyp4cc2.) This research, presumably conducted by the Police Foundation (www.PoliceFoundation.com), is a commendable first attempt to examine the use of body cameras by police officers, but it is severely flawed—and the findings reported cannot be validly generalized to other police departments. The sample is too small, and differences in the frequency of use of force and the number of citizen complaints were almost nonexistent.

    During a given week, the 54 frontline officers in the Rialto Police Department completed 19 shifts. Officers were randomly assigned to an experimental shift (officers with cameras) or to a control shift (officers without cameras). Each week, officers were randomly assigned to shifts, and each shift consisted of 10 officers with cameras or 10 officers without cameras. At year’s end, Poisson log‐linear regression was used to analyze data collected during approximately 500 experimental shifts and 500 control shifts. Shift type was identified as the predictor variable, and the frequency of using force and the number of citizen complaints were identified as dependent variables.

    The authors of this study, who were never identified, posed three hypotheses. First, “We hypothesize that portable cameras would go beyond the limited impact that closed-circuit televisions have had on expressive acts of violence in public spaces” (p. 4). Second, they hypothesized that “rational beings including police officers are unlikely to embrace socially undesirable behavior when videotaped” (p. 4). And third, “Cameras were hypothesized to increase police officers self-consciousness that they were being watched and therefore to increase their compliance to rules of conduct, especially around use of force” (p. 9). None of these hypotheses was tested! In fact, no hypothesis was identified to test, yet findings and conclusions were subsequently reported.

    Results. It was not possible to compute any effect between type of shift and the number of citizen complaints because of the paucity of citizen complaints. During 9 of the 12 months of this study, there was a zero or scant difference between the rate in the use of force between officers in the experimental shift and ones in the control shift. In other words, the significant effect reported between use of force and shift type was statistically significant but not practically significant. Thus, the findings in the Rialto study do not provide any basis for the Anaheim City Council to spend any money to equip Anaheim police officers with body cameras.

    Findings of the Rialto study do not preclude the Anaheim City Council from conducting an experiment in the use of body cameras. But there is no good reason to spend $1,250,000 to equip each Anaheim police officer with a body camera. Red light cameras are not needed at every intersection to control traffic or modify driver behavior. When the public knows that radar guns and red light camera are present, drivers modify driving practices. And not every Anaheim police officer needs a body camera. That some police officers are so equipped would likely have the same effect as affixing body cameras to all officers.

    A final thought: It seems to this researcher, as suggested in the blog, that citizens modify their behavior in response to knowing police wear body cameras, and police officers modify their behavior knowing their actions are always under surveillance—the reason why the Rialto study, which investigated only police behavior, does not provide any basis for spending $1,250,000 in Anaheim.

  4. After years of criminal harassment by the Garden Grove and Anaheim police departments, the Orange County Sheriffs department, the California Highway patrol etc. , we began OVERTLY video taping these oath violators using IPOD touch camera devices, Looxcie camera devices, cell phone camera devices etc.

    Our field experience demonstrated that the frequency of criminal incidents by the aforementioned law enforcement agencies was reduced by approximately 80% within days of implementation.

    You keep repeating the incorrect statement “the few bad cops”. You have hundreds of bad cops and deputies in Orange County, CA – since the 1990’s at least. And we all know what happened to the Anaheim PD in 1925.

  5. The Chief’s False Assertion

    In the City Council Agenda Report of September 9, Raul Quezada, Anaheim’s Chief of Police, falsely asserts: “The research and data indicate that use of force and complaints against officers were both markedly reduced in those Departments which implemented similar camera systems.”

    As I previously pointed out in my comments, the research on body cameras by police is scant. In the Rialto study (by an unidentified author), it was not possible to determine any causal relationship between the type of duty shift and the number of citizen complaints against police because there were so few complaints noted during shifts whose officers wore body cameras and shifts whose officers did not wear body cameras. The chief did not cite any research that the use of force against officers was markedly reduced in police departments whose officers wore body cameras. Neither did the chief cite any evidence that the use of media to capture and record events would strengthen the relationship between the police and the community, increase trust, or improve public confidence in actions by police officers.

    The police department wants to spend $1,250,000, which every city department would like to do.

  6. It would be “a shame” if Anaheim residents thought of it as protecting them from their police? Why would that be such a shame? After something like a dozen questionable police shootings in far fewer years, why would it be A SHAME for there to be some little reason for working-class Anaheim residents to trust their police a little more? What is wrong with you?

    [Juvenility edited out]

    • Matthew Cunningham

      Since you’re one of those who think we ought to fear our police officers, who fraternizes with and lends his sympathies to the “cops are murderous racists” crowd, then I suppose it makes sense for you to take exception to a perfectly normal sentiment. It just shows how far outside the mainstream of normal opinion you are, Vern.

  7. It’s conceivable that some crazy gangbanger might not do SOMETHING or other knowing that he’s being filmed, that he WOULD have done knowing he was facing probably more than one armed cop, whose word is gonna be accepted as gospel in court in any case. That seems stretching it. But still, being filmed should improve everyone’s behavior. This is progress albeit modest, a development to be celebrated, and a lot of people fought to make it happen.

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