Police officers across the country have been resistant to wearing body cameras, but a new study shows that the much-maligned devices can protect police just as much -- or more -- than civilians.
The presence of body cameras dramatically reduced the numbers of civilian complaints against officers, a new study from the University of Cambridge shows.
Researchers compared a 12-month period in which officers wore body cameras against a 12-month period when they did their jobs without them, and found that complaints against police dropped by 93 percent, the BBC reported.
The study monitored two police departments in the U.S. and four departments across the pond, tracking almost 2,000 officers in all, lead study author Dr. Barak Ariel told the BBC. Participating were the Rialto and Ventura police departments in California, as well as departments in Northern Ireland, the U.K.'s West Midlands, West Yorkshire, and Cambridgeshire.
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Overall, Ariel told the BBC, no other adjustment by law enforcement had produced such "radical" changes.
In the year officers did their jobs sans body cameras, civilians logged 1,539 complaints against them. After donning the cameras and wearing them for an equal amount of time, only 113 complaints were filed.
"I cannot think of any [other] single intervention in the history of policing," Ariel said, "that dramatically changed the way that officers behave, the way that suspects behave, and the way they interact with each other."
Like police officers, who may change the way they interact with the public when they know they're on camera, civilians also modify their behavior on camera, he said.
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"Once [citizens] are aware they are being recorded, once they know that everything they do is caught on tape, they will undoubtedly change their behavior because they don't want to get into trouble," Ariel said.
Assistant Chief Constable Simon Megicks from Hertfordshire Police participated in the research effort, and credited a "moderating factor" on both parties for reducing complaints. It's also helped prosecutors secure convictions, particularly in cases like domestic violence where victims may not cooperate.
Body cameras have become a key part of the conversation in the U.S. as the country struggles with ongoing tensions between law enforcement and the public, particularly over shootings in which police have killed young black men. Many of those incidents have been captured by bystanders armed with smartphone cameras, or CCTV footage -- but researchers believe body cameras have a more profound influence on the behavior of officers because they know their actions are recorded.
In late September, the Department of Justice issued $20 million in grants to 100 police departments across the country to help pay for body cameras.
"As we strive to support local leaders and law enforcement officials in their work to protect their communities, we are mindful that effective public safety requires more than arrests and prosecutions," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch wrote in a statement regarding the grants, reports The Atlantic. "It also requires winning – and keeping – the trust and confidence of the citizens we serve."
The 2016 U.S.-U.K. body camera study mirrors the results of a 2014 investigation by Univision-owned Fusion. That study found police benefited more from body cameras than civilians did, as the footage disproved false allegations of misconduct.
But the authors -- and civil rights leaders -- also criticized the way the cameras are implemented, with individual police officers able to control when the body cameras record. That's been a problem in several recent shootings in the U.S., with officers deactivating their cameras before confrontations or before taking fatal shots.
“This is one of our biggest concerns – the promise of this technology as a police oversight mechanism will be undermined if individual officers can manipulate what is taped and what isn’t,” ACLU Senior Policy Analyst Jay Stanley told Fusion. “There needs to be very strong policies that make very clear when police officers are expected to be recording and back that up with strict enforcement."