The Camera’s Broken Promise

Police body cams were going to fix everything. I began the “but for video” posts as it became clear that people, particularly judges and prosecutors, were now seeing what defense lawyers had been telling them was happening forever. Cops beat people. Cops killed people. Sometimes it was an excessive use of force. Sometimes, it was for no reason at all.

They always denied it happened, rejected what we told them. “Why would Officer Jones beat your client?” Hell if I knew, but he did. With video, we now know it happened. Not in every case. Not every cop. But some, and sometimes. It happens. It can no longer be denied. The question of “why?” was now better posed to the cop doing the beating or shooting rather than a demand of the defense to explain such a ridiculous and unprovable accusation.

Some thought the videos would cure the disease. They were certain that it would be the fix to this problem, because how crazy could a cop be to tune up a perp for kicks knowing it was being caught on video? Others, myself included, never believed it would be the penicillin panacea. It would help, perhaps alleviate some of the symptoms, but the disease would still fester. The First Rules of Policing would remain intact. Qualified immunity, union rules and the blue wall would protect them

As it turns out, it appears that body cams have done less than expected.

After a series of high-profile police shootings, police departments across the nation turned to body cameras, hoping they would curb abuses. But a rigorous study released Friday shows that they have almost no effect on officer behavior.

The 18-month study of more than 2,000 police officers in Washington found that officers equipped with cameras used force and prompted civilian complaints at about the same rate as those who did not have them.

The hope was that cops, knowing their actions were being caught on camera, would moderate their conduct so as not to go viral, be outed as a monster and suffer for their abusive ways. This wasn’t exactly behavior modification, as body cams didn’t deliver a jolt of painful electricity every time they screamed “motherfucker” (which, frankly, isn’t a bad idea), but there remained a naive belief that cops would prefer to be seen as protectors and servers, sheepdogs guarding their flock, rather than thugs.

Advocates for body cameras — including police officers, lawmakers and citizens in high-crime neighborhoods — have long argued that requiring officers to wear the devices would have a “civilizing effect” on both officers and the civilians who encounter them.

But, the authors of the new study cautioned, “these results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations” for body cameras to lead to “large-scale behavioral change in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.”

Nothing. No “civilizing effect” at all. They just don’t seem to care. To the extent this is because cops tend not to suffer any adverse consequences no matter how wrongful their conduct, a message is sent that we’re good with them abusing their power.

Behavior modification has never been the sole argument for body cameras. Their most important function may be to create an independent record of police shootings and other encounters with the public. But in some of those areas, too, videos have proved ambiguous: In the courtroom, for example, they have repeatedly failed to persuade juries.

The problem isn’t that videos “proved ambiguous,” but that a cop cottage industry grew out of nowhere to trick the silly groundlings into believing that cops ride unicorns on rainbows and can smell magical threats to their valuable lives a thousand miles away. And because we, in general, still prefer cops to criminals, jurors hem, haw, shrug and acquit.

Like so many fabulous solutions to intransigent problems, the emergence of video as the cure to police misconduct and abuse was widely embraced with vague rosy expectations. There were many foreseeable problems, ranging from the privacy of non-cops caught on video at low points in their lives to gaming, manipulating and “disappearing” video when it failed to support the story.

As video began organically, with cellphones appearing on Youtube and morphing into the next revenue stream for Taser International, which changed its name to Axon as people kept dying from its “non-lethal” weapon, there was little call to slow down and figure out what we wanted of body cams and how that could be delivered. It was just assumed it would happen and be good.

Though body cameras are now in greater use, their purpose is often left undefined, raising thorny questions about surveillance, privacy and other issues. “Police departments have been rushing to body cameras without sufficiently deciding what the goal is,” said Seth Stoughton, a former officer and a law professor at the University of South Carolina, who has studied the devices extensively. “When no one is sure what it is supposed to do, no one knows if it is working.”

All those years, we thought they just didn’t believe us, without proof, that the Glock-shaped bruise on the defendant’s head at arraignment wasn’t caused by his attacking the officer’s gun with his face. We thought the body cam was supposed to provide that proof, the evidence that we lacked so the usual rationalizations wouldn’t hold up.

As it turns out, that wasn’t the problem at all, because if it was, video has conclusively put to rest the “why would a cop do such thing” question that could never be satisfactorily answered. We have the answer now. Regardless of “why,” they do it. They do it a lot, and it’s all captured on video. As it turns out, they just don’t care. Not cops. Not prosecutors. Not judges. At least not enough to change much of anything.

13 thoughts on “The Camera’s Broken Promise

  1. Billy Bob

    Just like in tennis, golf, football and boxing, it’s all in the wrist. The private sector, if permitted, will solve some of these problems. Oh wait! Robo-cop? The work is dangerous, but the pay is pretty good.

  2. LTMG

    Before believing this study, I’d want to closely examine the study design to see if it is properly done. Inputs from 2000 police officers is far too many needed for a statistically reliable study. Next, I’d want to learn who funded the study. Do the funds have any connection to the police department or the police union? The skeptic in me says the results are possibly self-serving.

    1. SHG Post author

      “I’d want…” Well put, because what’s more important than what you’d want. And if it satisfied you, then the rest of us could sleep tonight.

  3. REvers

    There’s another problem you didn’t mention. The cops, at least the cops in my neck of the woods, are already learning how to work around the cameras. I recently got a body cam video of a car search that I was expecting to provide pretty good grounds for a suppression motion. What I got instead was a couple of minutes of a close-up of the driver’s seat cushion. The cop leaned over into the car and then managed to keep everything he did off-camera. The cops arms were visible at the sides but not once were his hands ever visible. Not much help for a claim that the cop planted the weed.

    1. maz

      I think I just had a terrific product idea: Police uniform jackets with *four* sleeves. The upper pair are padded, with realistic fake hands attached. Before conducting the search, the officer rotates them forward at the shoulder socket, extending them to the front, and aligns the bodycam with them, leaving him free to conduct the search off-camera using his real limbs.

      Or maybe that’s not necessary, and an Instagram-style filter that superimposes a pair of outreached arms would suffice…

    2. SHG Post author

      That was always expected, and one of the reasons why, no matter what else happened, they would never be quite as good as hoped.

      1. al

        And therefore there are proposals to replace them with fisheye type lens for a 180 deg field of view.

        Its an arms race

  4. Bruce Coulson

    Change takes time. Each time an officer gets investigated for use of force, even if acquitted, the gap gets a little wider. Even if one merely loses a few hours of pay, the gap gets wider. But the change will be slow, and in its own way even more frustrating.

  5. Jim Tyre

    The NPR story makes a point more clearly than does the NYT piece:

    It’s to be expected that these cameras might have little impact on the behavior of police officers in Washington, D.C., he says, because this particular force went through about a decade of federal oversight to help improve the department.

    You know this subject better than I do. But that quote makes me wonder whether this study can be generalized to most urban police departments.

  6. Michael McNutt

    Much like you I thought maybe some change,but little cameras do little to change small minds,either those wearing them or watching the results…..

  7. B. McLeod

    This really doesn’t surprise me. For a period of years now, police have certainly had to deal with a growing likelihood that anything and everything they do may be captured on video. However, that has not had any noticeable effect. Also, “no change in behavior” is on par with what we have seen from cameras in retail establishments and banks having no real impact on crime. I guess the lesson is people will do what they do, and try to contest the video evidence later.

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