Future Tense

Three Myths About Police Body Cams

Filming interactions between law enforcement and citizens might not stop the next Ferguson from happening.

A police officer wears a body camera at a rally for Michael Brown on Aug. 30, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images

In the wake of the tragic police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been much speculation and debate about what actually transpired. Lots of news commentators seem to believe that the Brown case would be resolved sooner—and there would be less civil unrest—had the officer who shot him been equipped with a body-worn camera. In fact, the Ferguson Police Department has now begun to implement this technology.

Cops wearing cameras is indeed a great idea, for all the reasons you might expect: The cameras have the potential to increase accountability, reduce complaints, and in some situations have a civilizing effect on the way police and citizens interact. It’s only a matter of time before police departments adopt them on a wide scale. The question isn’t if but when it will happen.

But many assumptions people make about body-worn cameras simply aren’t true. We’re academics who have studied body cameras for years, and in our work we’ve identified three pervasive myths about the equipment. If police departments around the country are going to adopt the technology, then both law enforcement and citizens need to know about potential downsides as well.

The first myth is that video evidence is completely objective and free of interpretation. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a video must be worth at least a million. Or is it? For example, we’ve been working on a study surveying residents in a large West Coast city about their experiences with police officers during traffic stops. One finding was surprising: When asked whether they observed the officer touch his gun when approaching the car, 50.9 percent of black motorists said yes. In contrast, only 11.5 percent of white motorists observed the officer touch his gun. What’s surprising is not the disparity but that police training and policy in this city required all officers to approach vehicles during traffic stops with their hand on their service weapon. Essentially, white motorists may not have been paying as much attention to where the officer was placing his or her hands when approaching the vehicle. What was a subtlety of behavior for whites was not a minor detail for blacks. The police in this city did not wear on-officer video cameras. It is possible that police were more likely to disregard their training with white motorists, but a 2007 study by the Rand Corp. found that when researchers matched stops involving black drivers with similarly situated white drivers (those stopped at the same time, place, etc.), officers were no more likely to disregard their training for white motorists. What do you think—was our finding due to a difference in police behavior or selective awareness of the officer touching his firearm?

The point is that two people observing the same police activity may see different things because each person will focus her attention on details that are most important to her own self-interest. A video clip from body cams is part of a larger story, some of which is not caught on camera. People interpret what they see on video through the filter of their own experiences. An officer may interpret what he sees on a video differently than a civil rights lawyer or a young person from an urban area. Different viewers may contextualize the event differently in terms of how it is framed in their mind, how they think it was precipitated, and what they think happened in the 30 seconds before the camera started rolling. The technology doesn’t provide this context—being human does.

The second myth is that on-officer video cameras will be a silver bullet for improving the way police interact with citizens. While cameras can be helpful in some situations, most police work does not involve serious crime. Research consistently indicates that less than 20 percent of calls to the police are for felony crimes, and police use of force occurs in only 1 percent of police-citizen contacts. The rest involve mediating disputes; assisting people who are injured, mentally ill, and/or in crisis; counseling disorderly youths; and providing referrals to those who need assistance. In short, police do a lot of social work, and cameras can make those kinds of interactions more difficult. In our field research on body cameras, there have been many times when cameras made matters worse for the officer. For example, in one situation an officer was trying to comfort a teenage girl who lived in an abusive home, but he found it difficult to show compassion and respect for her privacy with the camera rolling. Though the cameras are small, they are not always unobtrusive because officers wear them on their head using a wrap-around headpiece. The device can be a physical reminder to crime victims that they are on camera at times when they are most vulnerable and in need of privacy.

The last myth is that because on-officer video evidence is “objective,” it will help reduce civil unrest and controversy. On the contrary, it is possible that on-officer video creates a polarizing effect on some controversies because people with strong convictions about what has transpired during a police shooting may use the “facts” that they see in the video footage to support their expectations about what occurred in the blind spots.

While it is impossible to know what would have happened in Ferguson had the officer been wearing a camera, we do know how this technology affects police work. In our research in Mesa, Arizona, we examined how wearing a camera during police-citizen encounters influenced police behavior. We used a quasi-experimental design in which 50 officers were assigned to wear on-officer video cameras for one year and the other 50 officers did not. We found that officers equipped with body-worn cameras conducted significantly fewer stop and frisks and arrests than officers who were not wearing the technology, suggesting that the presence of a camera may have led officers to think more carefully about what constitutes reasonable suspicion in stop-and-frisk situations and probable cause during arrests. Camera officers also wrote a lot more tickets, perhaps because they were concerned about being reprimanded for not issuing citations when the video evidence showed citizens violating an ordinance.

We also found that camera officers were more likely to initiate contact with citizens while comparisons officers were more likely to respond to dispatched calls. At the outset of the study, police commanders were concerned that body-worn cameras might cause officers to focus their time on dispatched calls, instead of proactively interacting with citizens. We found this not to be the case, suggesting that body-worn cameras enable officers to record suspicious activities on the street before initiating contact with a suspect. This may give them more justification and confidence to initiate encounters. In short, police are actually more proactive when wearing cameras, without increasing their use of invasive strategies that threatened the legitimacy of the organization, such as unjustified stop and frisks and misdemeanor arrests.

Monitoring police behavior and demonstrating accountability are in the public’s interest as well as police departments’. But accomplishing this goal will require great attention to conveying recorded information honestly, as conflicting interests may come into play regarding how the content of officer recordings are conveyed to the public.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.