How Police Body Cameras Can Improve Behavior, Ease Tension


(San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Los Angeles Police Department officer displays new body cameras in Los Angeles, California, August 31, 2015

A Los Angeles Police Department officer displays new body cameras in Los Angeles, California, August 31, 2015

Photo by Al Seib/Pool/Files/Reuters

by Alex Sutherland and Barak Ariel

November 2, 2016

What can the city of Rialto, in San Bernardino County, teach the world's criminal justice agencies? After all, its Police Department of 54 officers only serves 100,000 residents. But here's what you may not know: The Rialto Police Department led the world in the understanding of how body-worn cameras can change policing.

In 2012, we joined the Rialto police in conducting the world's first randomized experiment of the effect of body cameras on relations between police and the public. This experiment came about through the foresight of then-Police Chief Tony Farrar, with whom we—two academics with expertise in criminal justice—co-authored the research.

Each week, all shifts were randomly assigned to treatment or control. On a treatment shift, all officers had to wear cameras, had to keep the cameras turned on for their whole shift and had to give verbal warnings to anyone they encountered that they were wearing a camera. On control shifts, no one wore cameras. The study then compared those shifts where cameras were being used to those where they weren't.

The results were surprising—because they were so clear. When officers were wearing cameras on shifts, police use of force against suspects was 50 percent lower. Similarly, complaints against the police fell to almost zero in the 12 months after the cameras were introduced.

A single complaint against a police force can cost upward of a million dollars.

Police use of force and the complaints it engenders are expensive for police departments. They cost the trust and cooperation of communities. And a single complaint against a police force can cost upward of a million dollars in compensation. For a small force like Rialto, that's a big blow to the budget.

Does success in Rialto predict success in places like Houston and Baton Rouge, where we've seen police come under public scrutiny for excessive use of force?

Recently, we ran a series of new experiments with 10 police forces across the U.S. and U.K., with more underway. The results from these studies generally confirm the Rialto Police Department experiment findings. But there are two crucial caveats: It cannot be left to the officers to determine the shifts during which they will wear the cameras, and the cameras must stay turned on for the entire shift.

As soon as officers are given the power to decide which cases should be recorded, or at which point during the interaction with the citizen to turn the camera on, body-worn cameras not only can fail, but may backfire. We found that when officers used their discretion to turn cameras on and off during their shifts, this was associated with an increased use of force.

Cameras should be on before officers are engaged with suspects and kept on throughout their whole shift.

What we take from this is that when making the decision to invest in body cameras, police departments need to be thinking hard about how they want them used—we think the evidence is good enough to say that cameras should be on before officers are engaged with suspects and (ideally) kept on throughout their whole shift.

And this isn't just about use of force, but also their role in evidence, police-community interactions and police accountability. The Rialto Police Department, like many other law enforcement agencies, began using an online system operated by Taser called to streamline tracking of evidence and delivery of cases to the District Attorney's Office. This is part of a wider movement of digitization in policing, and Rialto was one of its leaders. Having all the interactions recorded, available for audit if necessary and electronically coded, added to the overall design of the experiment. We anticipate that this will soon be standard procedure for policing.

If being observed by a body camera leads to greater professionalism, accountability and a more consensual style of policing, officers may not resort to unnecessary or excessive force. At the same time—and as important—citizens who are videotaped while talking to cops may exercise more self-control and take part in a respectful dialogue with officers of the law, even if they are suspected of breaking the law. The camera keeps both the officer and the citizen in check by reminding them they are being watched.

Body-worn cameras alone cannot solve the problems with policing in America today. But used properly they can help address the mistrust that has grown between some communities and their police.

Alex Sutherland is a research leader at RAND Europe, part of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. Barak Ariel is a lecturer in Experimental Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge, and at Hebrew University, Jerusalem. This essay is part of a Zocalo Inquiry into what makes a healthy neighborhood, produced in conjunction with the California Wellness Foundation's Advancing Wellness Poll.

This commentary originally appeared on San Diego Union-Tribune on October 21, 2016. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.