Complaints against cops down 93% thanks to bodycams – study

Quite likely keeping both the cops and public in check

Metropolitan police image via Shutterstock
Photo via Shutterstock

The introduction of body-worn cameras (BWCs) has lead to a 93 per cent drop in complaints made against the police, according to new research.

A year-long study of almost 2,000 officers across forces in the UK and US, led by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, found that the use of BWCs resulted in significant behavioural changes from both police officers and citizens.

The experiment took place across seven sites during 2014 and early 2015, and involved cops from Northern Ireland, the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Cambridgeshire. In the US it also included the Californian police departments of Rialto and Ventura.

The findings are reported in the paper ”Contagious Accountability” which was published today in the Criminal Justice and Behaviour journal.

“Cooling down potentially volatile police-public interactions to the point where official grievances against the police have virtually vanished may well lead to the conclusion that the use of body-worn cameras represents a turning point in policing,” said Cambridge criminologist and the paper's lead author Dr Barak Ariel.

Ariel continued: “There can be no doubt that body-worn cameras increase the transparency of frontline policing. Anything that has been recorded can be subsequently reviewed, scrutinised and submitted as evidence.”

This leads to individual officers becoming more accountable, and modifying their behaviour accordingly, said Ariel, who continued to note that “the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous.”

“The cameras create an equilibrium between the account of the officer and the account of the suspect about the same event – increasing accountability on both sides,” concluded the professor.

While complaints drop, however, earlier results from the same study actually showed that the use of body-worn cameras were associated with increased assaults against police, and increase in use-of-force if officers were able to choose when to activate the cameras.

Those findings were reported last year across two publications; in the European Journal of Criminology and the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

Officers were found to have preferred to use their discretion with BWCs, activating them depending on the situation rather than recording all stages of every police-public interaction, and issue a warning of filming at the outset.

The researchers found that when all stages of every police-public interaction was recorded, the cops' use of force fell by 37 per cent in comparison with camera-free shifts. However, during shifts in which officers used their discretion about when to start recording, their use of force actually rose 71 per cent.

“The combination of the camera plus the early warning creates awareness that the encounter is being filmed, modifying the behaviour of all involved,” said Ariel.

“If an officer decides to announce mid-interaction they are beginning to film, for example, that could provoke a reaction that results in a use of force,” Ariel said. “Our data suggests this could be what is driving the results.”

“With so much at stake, these findings must continue to be scrutinised through further research and more studies. In the meantime, it’s clear that more training and engagement with police officers are required to ensure they are confident in the decisions they make while wearing cameras, and are safe in their job,” said co-author and RAND Europe researcher Alex Sutherland.

Ariel added, “It may be that in some places it’s a bad idea to use body-worn cameras, and the only way you can find that out is to keep doing these tests in different kinds of places. After all, what might work for a sheriff’s department in Iowa may not necessarily apply to the Tokyo PD.” ®

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