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Rod Watson: Body cams alone won't constrain rogue cops

The Buffalo Police Department is taking a big step toward increasing public confidence in its officers by proceeding with the adoption of body cameras – a step the Erie County Sheriff’s Office should emulate.

But anyone who thinks this, in itself, will constrain rogue cops and end police abuse may well be disappointed if the results of one large study of body cameras in an urban setting are representative.

It seems like common sense that body cams would have a salutary effect. And indeed, one of the first analyses – a small-scale study of the Rialto, Calif., police department in 2012 by the National Police Foundation – fed that notion. As the authors noted in laying out that 12-month experiment, "a voluminous body of research across various disciplines has shown that when humans become self-conscious about being watched, they often alter their conduct."

That impact could apply to officers as well as the citizens they encounter, both of whom might be expected to behave more appropriately when the cameras are rolling.

And sure enough, the Rialto study found half as many use-of-force incidents on shifts where officers were wearing body cameras. The study also found 2.5 times fewer use-of-force incidents during the study period, when cameras were being worn, compared to the 12 months before the study. There also were far fewer complaints against officers during the study period than before.

That was one of the first field experiments on the impact of body cameras and the results helped spark their proliferation, particularly in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting in 2014, where there was no body cam footage.

But the Rialto department had only 54 front-line officers. Given the small scale and other shortcomings of many such studies, a much larger analysis involving 2,224 officers in Washington, D.C., was undertaken by the Lab@DC in cooperation with that city’s Metropolitan Police Department. That 18-month randomized study, billed as the largest to date when published in 2017, measured four outcomes: police use of force, citizen complaints, policing activity – such as tickets issued and arrests – and judicial outcomes.

Public access to Buffalo police bodycam footage will be limited

The results were surprising.

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"We were unable to detect any statistically significant effects" of body cameras in any of the four categories, the authors concluded.

In trying to explain their counter-intuitive finding, they offered several possible explanations. One is that the D.C. force, trained to handle large-scale events from presidential inaugurations to massive demonstrations, has a unique skill set that better equips officers to deal with citizens.

Another is that perhaps neither the officers nor the suspects noticed the cameras while focused on their altercation. Or, alternatively, they were aware the camera was rolling but "other factors in the heat of the moment may override any deterrent effect the cameras may have had."

That might explain why a cop like Sheriff’s Deputy Kenneth Achtyl, fully aware of the body camera worn by his partner, still bloodied the face of a Buffalo Bills fan in an unnecessary arrest best described as an assault.

That "heat of the moment" explanation also might explain why other rogue cops cross the line despite knowing that any such public encounter today is probably being recorded by bystanders with phones.

Such explanations underscore the fact that body cameras – while undeniably necessary – are no substitute for proper screening to weed out people who should not be police officers, and proper training of those who are hired so that they reflexively respond properly under stress.

The cameras may be great tools for punishing abusive cops after the fact, but the real solution is having officers who recognize the responsibility that comes with the power they wield and who respect the citizens they are dealing with. That can only come with screening, training and leadership that makes clear what kind of behavior is expected.


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