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Why Can’t Bodycams Improve Officer Behavior?

After the DC Metropolitan Police Department (“DC MPD”) conducted a body-worn camera (“bodycam”) study involving more than 2,000 officers, the New York Times’ headline on the study results was: “A Big Test of Police Body Cameras Defies Expectations.” That headline reveals the stunning anti-law enforcement bias behind the expectation that bodycams will curb supposed bad behavior by law enforcement.

About the Study

A group called “The Lab @ DC,” housed within the DC City Administrator’s Office, conducted the study. It compared 1,000 DC MPD officers who wore bodycams with 1,000 who didn’t. It is reportedly “one of the largest randomized evaluations of BWCs [bodycams] conducted to date.” The study primarily looked at the differences in uses of force and civilian complaints between the two groups. What they found, apparently defying expectations, was that wearing bodycams did not make a difference in how the officers behaved.

In reporting this conclusion, the study authors were unable to conceal their own bias. “[O]ur experiment suggests that we should recalibrate our expectations of BWCs.” [bold in original] Their use of the word “expectations” says everything. Clearly they began their study with the expectation that there was enough misbehavior in the ranks of the DC MPD to justify the time and money this study required.

Where did these expectations come from? Distorted media reporting and non-critical acceptance of statements that confirm pre-existing biases.

A false narrative has been created that police officers regularly lie about their encounters with civilians, and that the only way to curb those lies is with recordings. That narrative is dangerous, having been proven to lead to less safe communities.

Two Prominent Examples

It is not the aim of this column to detail the many, many ways this is wrong, but the high-profile killings of Michael Brown and Alton Sterling are two good examples.

In Michael Brown’s case, the mainstream media unquestioningly presented the “hands up – don’t shoot” story of an “innocent teenager” killed by a callous police officer. The media, including social media, picked it up and ran with it, not bothering to wait for the facts.

The United States Department of Justice investigated. The facts established by their extensive investigation show that “hands up – don’t shoot!” is a lie.

Witness accounts suggesting that Brown was standing still with his hands raised in an unambiguous signal of surrender when Wilson shot Brown are inconsistent with the physical evidence, are otherwise not credible because of internal inconsistencies, or are not credible because of inconsistencies with other credible evidence.

The Alton Sterling incident is similar. The media reported it as the unjustified killing of an unarmed black man by police. Again, this lie was repeated and spread throughout conventional and social media. Again, the facts established by the Department of Justice tell a different story. The police officers believed that Sterling was reaching for a gun, after being ordered not to move:

When Officer Salamoni first reported that Sterling was going for the gun, he said, “Going for his pocket, he’s got a gun! Gun!” Significantly, Officer Salamoni did not shoot Sterling at this point, and, instead, attempted to gain control of Sterling’s right hand. Officer Lake also warned Sterling not to move. Seconds later, Officer Salamoni yelled again that Sterling was “going for the gun!” and only then did he fire his own weapon. This evidence suggests that Officer Salamoni fired his weapon when he believed that Sterling was going for his gun a second time, after Officer Lake had warned Sterling not to move.

The scope of the DOJ investigation into Alton Sterling’s death is noteworthy.

The Department conducted a ten-month, comprehensive, and independent investigation of the events surrounding Sterling’s death. Federal agents and career prosecutors examined evidence from multiple independent sources, including all available footage from police vehicles that responded to the scene and the body-worn cameras from responding officers; cell-phone videos of the incident; interior and exterior surveillance video footage from the store where the shooting occurred; evidence gathered by the BRPD’s crime lab; BRPD documents related to the shooting; personnel files and background material for both involved officers, including prior use-of-force incidents; BRPD policies and training materials; all relevant dispatch recordings between and among local law enforcement, including the originating 911 calls; forensic evidence reports; the autopsy report; photographs of the crime scene; toxicology reports; EMS reports; and extensive additional electronically-stored evidence. As part of the investigation, the FBI laboratory conducted an expert forensic analysis of the video footage capturing the incident between Sterling and the officers. The FBI also interviewed dozens of witnesses, including civilian witnesses who were present at the scene and officers who responded to the scene after the shooting.

While the need to use deadly force because of a suspect’s choices can always be considered a tragedy, these false narratives are causing real harm in other ways also.

As shown by this study and its “expectations,” we are wasting resources trying to solve a non-existent problem created by biased and distorted portrayals of law enforcement. This will lead to bigger problems.

Bodycams create privacy and civil rights concerns, such as when they are used in a domestic violence case or when children are present. Law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and courts are struggling to deal with the cost, time, and staff hours required to use and store bodycam recordings.

Worse, these distorted portrayals create less secure communities. Roughly three-quarters of police officers say that “their colleagues are more reluctant to use force when appropriate or to stop and question people who seem suspicious.” In high-crime communities this means less intervention. And tragically, the mischaracterization of law enforcement officers is leading to lethal ambush-style attacks on officers responding to calls.

Eventually, our justice system will be eroded by this manufactured distrust of law enforcement and the forced solutions to non-existent problems. We don’t need bodycams to persuade us to tell the truth. We promise to do so every time we testify under oath.

And, the videos are not going to be the slam-dunk proof many seem to think. The DC bodycam study bears this out in its prosecution statistics, which showed (again) that bodycams didn’t make a difference.

Evidence always needs context. One commentator put it this way:

As these communities endeavor to make a video “speak for itself,” they will inevitably speak for it, imposing competing interpretations and introducing uncertainty instead of proof.

Body cams are not a panacea. To be truly effective in the courts of law, they will require thoughtful legal parameters concerning the admission, interpretation, and power of video evidence: this in addition to considering the system-level changes and privacy protections that experts suggest.

The Mystery of Why the Bodycams Didn’t Change Behavior

After concluding that bodycams didn’t make a difference, the study authors consider a number of different explanations.

They first theorize that maybe the findings don’t need to be explained. Yet they try to anyway.

Perhaps bodycams didn’t make a difference in DC is because DC MPD is already under elevated scrutiny as the police force for the nation’s capital. Or (directly contradictory to the first theory), perhaps the reason is that DC MPD’s misconduct had already been abated by the use of consent decrees. Of course, the study authors knew both of these things when they designed the study, so it is not clear why these possibilities were not designed into the study protocol.

Another explanation was that possibly bodycams do make a difference, but just not in ways the study captured. Possibly bodycams actually did affect the behavior of non-bodycam-wearing officers, who were simply aware that bodycams were around. Or perhaps this was true on a broader scale – perhaps the mere use pf the bodycams by some of the officers actually did change the behavior of most of the rest of the officers, even though not all were assigned bodycams.

Or perhaps the prevalence of so many cameras in society (think: cell phones) means that we have already corrected this assumed “bad behavior” as much as possible, and bodycams just can’t make any more of a dent. The study authors tested this and found that it wasn’t true, either.

Maybe the bodycam officers just didn’t follow the policy of turning them on, so the effects weren’t measured? Nope. That theory also didn’t hold water.

The study authors stopped short of suggesting that perhaps the bodycam effects were actually present but were hidden by a cell phone camera positioned on a grassy knoll.

The study authors’ disappointment is palpable that their data failed to corroborate their expectations of police misconduct. The furthest they can get is in the last paragraph, where they again acknowledge their expectations:

[O]ur experiment suggests that we should recalibrate our expectations of BWCs. Law enforcement agencies (particularly in contexts similar to Washington, DC) that are considering adopting BWCs should not expect dramatic reductions in use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology.

After discussing their study, how rigorously they designed it, and the conditions under which it was carried out, they just cannot bring themselves to question its fundamental assumption: That contrary to the portrayal of the liberal media, the vast majority of our law enforcement officers are men and women of integrity who work tirelessly to serve their communities and uphold our system in an unbiased, impartial manner.

The mighty striving that the study authors undertook to explain their results is all the more insulting to law enforcement in that the study authors did not give the obvious answer more than a passing glance. The study authors would do well to emulate the integrity of the profession they have worked so hard to malign in their study.

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