Future Tense

A Tale of Two Cities

Whether body cams succeed in increasing police transparency depends entirely on training and policies.

NYPD Body Camera
An example of a police body camera that is being used as part of an NYPD pilot program involving 60 officers.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

According to a poll out this week from USA Today/Pew Research Center, 90 percent of Americans support proposals to equip police with cameras. The tragic events in Ferguson and New York City have created the perception that video evidence will fix the legitimacy crisis that exists within minority communities regarding trust of police. But the technology itself can’t fix anything. For body cams to work, we’ll need reasonable policy and implementation of on-officer video programs.

In the New York case, the grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo, despite the fact that there was video footage (albeit not from a body-worn camera) of the officer placing Eric Garner in a chokehold. But the video footage didn’t guarantee that there wasn’t controversy or that there would be an indictment. In fact, Garner’s death was perhaps more contentious precisely because there was video evidence. Rather than bringing people together, it seemed to polarize public opinions on the incident, particularly along racial lines.

Equipping cops with cameras is a great idea, for the reasons you might expect: Cameras have the potential to increase accountability and in some cases have a civilizing effect on the way police and citizens interact. A yearlong study that we conducted, in which 50 officers were assigned to wear on-officer video cameras and a control group of 50 officers did not wear cameras, confirms these expectations. We found that officers wearing body cameras conducted significantly fewer stop-and-frisks and arrests, suggesting that the technology may lead officers to think more carefully about what constitutes reasonable suspicion in stop-and-frisk situations and probably cause during arrests.

But the policies that departments develop—and whether officers are compliant with them—will be far more important than the process of distributing cameras to patrol officers. There is a clash between two cultures within police departments. Police leadership—i.e., chiefs and upper management—is far more supportive of the technology and tends to view body-worn cameras as a tool for increasing accountability and reducing civil liability. On the other hand, the patrol officer culture is concerned that the technology will be an unfair intrusion into their routine activities—for instance, it might invite over-managing minor policy violations. If they have to start wearing cameras, their priority is to identify a product that is easy to use and to develop a policy that will protect officers from personal liability—so that they are not being unfairly portrayed on video. In other words, police leadership tends to want to adopt a product and policy that captures the most amount information surrounding the police-citizen contact. To them, more information is better than less. Patrol officers want to adopt a device and policy that most accurately portrays the incident from their point of view.

In the metropolitan area where we conducted our research, two cities are experimenting with officer video cameras. In City A, the leadership culture won. It adopted an on-officer video product that included a night-recording function, providing greater clarity to footage captured in the dark. The device adopted by City A also has a back-recording option, so the video starts recording 30 second before the officer presses the record button. (The camera has a continual recording loop where information is captured and then discarded in 30 second intervals—but no video is actually saved unless the officer presses the record button.) This department also adopted a mandatory policy where officers were required to activate the camera during all police-citizen contacts relating to a criminal event.

In contrast, in City B—the one with the stronger union influence—the patrol officer culture won. It selected an on-officer video product without a night recording function or back-recording capabilities. The department also adopted a discretionary policy where officers would activate the camera when “appropriate.” Decisions about which technology to purchase may have a profound effect on the volume and quality of video recorded. Because most crime occurs at night, it is likely that a large proportion of video captured by City B cannot be used by police managers or in court. It is also the case that the back-recording function on the device adopted by City A provides critical context that more broadly frames the incident for the officer and the public.

Deciding when to hit “record” is also important. Under a discretionary policy, officers may be less inclined to activate the device. We found that when City A shifted from a mandatory to a discretionary approach, there was a 42 percent drop in activations. (It subsequently returned to a mandatory policy.) Discretionary policies will undoubtedly lead critics to ask why the officer didn’t use the camera. On the other hand, mandatory activation may be unnecessarily intrusive in some situations. Officers would be required to record citizens for the estimated 80 percent of calls to police that are not related to serious crime. Officers often have to mediate disputes, provide counseling to minors, and de-escalate situations involving traumatic events and the mentally ill. These are the situations when citizen are vulnerable and most in need of privacy.

There are concerns about the militarization of the police and the increased use of military equipment and tactics when they should be building trust and respect in minority communities. Cameras may actually intensify existing problems in communities. At the core of the issue is the legitimacy of authority. Cameras will increase transparency and make officers more risk averse. But the technology has the potential to increase the social distance between officers and citizens in minority communities by taking away the human dimension of social interactions that occur between officers and the citizens they’re supposed to protect and serve.

Finally, we have to be wary of sensationalizing police behavior. Take, for example, police use of Tasers. In a 2007 analysis of news reports in LexisNexis and the New York Times, one of us found that the media accurately reported the details of specific Taser incidents, but those examples are extremely rare situations that are not typical Taser deployments. More than 30 percent of Taser deployments in the news resulted in a citizen’s death—but less than 1 percent of all Taser deployments actually result in death. This skewed representation of Taser incidents shown in the news may cause the public to overestimate the incidence of Taser-related deaths.

With on-officer video cameras, the public will often see the worst of the worst in their evening news, and media outlets tend to play that footage on a loop. Over time, this may have a cumulative effect on the trust and confidence we place in the police. Research shows that individuals have distorted beliefs about the prevalence of crime and that these misperceptions are more pronounced among those who watch a great deal of television.

The advantages of this technology clearly outweigh the costs. But we should have tempered expectations about what the technology can and cannot accomplish. Simply equipping officers with cameras will not solve many of the complex social problems that created the situations in Ferguson and New York City.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, 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.