The death of George Floyd has led to calls for greater accountability for police, appeals that are both reasonable and familiar. One way departments have responded to earlier such demands, following similar such incidents, has been to adopt body-worn cameras — and the results have been decidedly mixed.
Body cameras are typically turned on at the beginning of any interaction with civilians. The idea is that recording officers’ interactions would lead to better behavior. If officers know in the moment that what they are doing is wrong, then knowing that the camera is recording them could deter such behavior.
The cameras themselves are cheap, but storage and the redaction of footage (for when release to the public is necessary) is expensive. Private companies have made a bundle from local officials’ desire to address citizens’ concerns.
Did the public get anything for this investment? This is a rare instance where there is a lot of research. Many cities rolled out body-worn cameras as a randomized controlled trial — assigning some officers to wear cameras and others not. By comparing otherwise identical officers with and without cameras, researchers were able to measure the impact of the cameras themselves.
In many places, the researchers found, civilian complaints against officers went down. But this could be due to a decline in more frivolous, unsubstantiated complaints and doesn’t necessarily reflect a change in police behavior. In some places, use of force by officers went down, while in others it went up, perhaps because officers believed the video would show the facts were on their side. In still other places, there was no effect at all. In some places assigning officers to wear cameras led to an increase in assaults against those officers; this could be because the cameras themselves caused confrontations to escalate, or because the officers were more hesitant to defend themselves when they were being recorded.
All in all, the research does not point to a definitive conclusion — except maybe that body cameras alone do not lead to better officer-citizen interactions.
One question is why this technology, which sounded so promising initially, didn’t have the intended benefits. It could be that most officers who use unnecessary force do so because they genuinely fear for their physical safety — even if, in retrospect, it appears they were overreacting. In other words, the unnecessary use of force might not be malicious. If someone fails to keep their cool in a stressful situation, then cameras alone are unlikely to deter officers’ behavior, because that behavior isn’t a really a choice.
There is another argument for the use of body cameras: Even if they don’t always deter bad behavior, they can tell departments where to direct their attention. In some cases, additional training could be helpful. Yet policing is difficult and dangerous work, and it isn’t for everyone. Some people won’t change their behavior no matter how much training they receive. These people should not be police officers.
Could cameras at least help identify those people? Possibly. But as it turns out, identifying problem officers is not difficult. Past complaints predict future bad behavior. Even if police departments had the capacity to watch tens of thousands of hours of body-worn camera footage — and they don’t — such scrutiny would be of marginal utility in helping them figure out who needs training, reprimanding or firing. Their data on citizen complaints provide the information they need.
This leads to the question of why they’re not using it. After all, officers who receive a lot of complaints don’t necessarily face bad consequences. Similarly, video evidence of bad behavior doesn’t lead to bad consequences. In fact, even a viral video of a police officer killing someone who posed no threat does not always result in charges filed against that officer, or lead to that officer losing his or her job. (And in instances where officers do lose their jobs, it appears relatively easy for them to simply move to another department.) In short, bad behavior has few costs for police officers.
Police departments should be encouraged to experiment with different interventions, even if unions resist. Police chiefs need to address bad behavior before it does even more damage. When officers behave badly on the job, they should face consequences — just like employees in any industry. What exactly should happen to them — should they get more training or mentoring, or punishment, or lose their badge and gun? — is the crucial question, and it’s one for which body cameras don’t provide an answer.
As an economist, I love data. I also believe strongly in the power of incentives. Body-worn camera programs are an expensive attempt to find a way to build trust between police officers and their communities. Video footage alone can’t do that, however, if there are no consequences for the bad behavior it reveals.