UK Study: Police Body Cams Cut Complaints By 93 Percent

| by Sam Gravity
A Boston police officer wears a body camera. A Boston police officer wears a body camera.

A study by England's University of Cambridge found a 93 percent decrease in complaints made against officers wearing body cameras in comparison to complaints made the previous year when officers did not wear body cams.

The study aimed to find out if the cameras, which clip to the top half of an officer’s uniform and record police activity, affected public complaints. The research analyzed almost 1.5 million officer hours across more than 4,000 shifts from four U.K. and two U.S. police departments, representing police interactions with about 2 million citizens, the BBC reports.

The findings, published in the academic journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, indicated complaints dropped from 1,539 in the previous year to 113 when the body cameras were worn -- a reduction of 93 percent. Dr. Barak Ariel, the lead researcher in the study, said no other policy led to such “radical” changes.

"Once [the public] are aware they are being recorded ... they will undoubtedly change their behavior because they don't want to get into trouble,” Ariel said. "Individual officers become more accountable, and modify their behavior accordingly, while the more disingenuous complaints from the public fall by the wayside once footage is likely to reveal them as frivolous."

The U.S. Justice Department announced on Sept. 26 it’s awarding over $20 million to law enforcement agencies nationwide to enhance their use of body cameras in response to shootings of black men by police, according to The Associated Press. But policies about when police departments release body camera recordings still vary widely, as shown by protests surrounding the unreleased video of the death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, in late September, CNN reports.  

In a recent poll conducted by Tulchin for the American Civil Liberties Union, 79 percent of California voters surveyed believed footage should be publicly accessible in any case where an officer is reported for misconduct, and 72 percent agreed video should be made public any time an officer uses force.

But David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told The Washington Times if video is released before police are finished questioning witnesses, it can contaminate statements they give to investigators.

“Videos are rarely dispositive,” Klinger said. “They rarely tell you everything you need to know, so it becomes another part of the rush to judgment.”

The University of Cambridge study acknowledged video recordings alone do not prevent police misconduct, and emphasized a verbal warning by officers that a recording was taking place was necessary to improving police interactions.

“This verbal warning could sensitize people, leading them to modify their behavior. It could also serve to remind people of the rules that are in play -- politeness being the bare minimum -- but other rules such as laws,” Ariel noted in the study. “Similarly, the verbal prompt may jolt individuals into thinking a little more before they act, becoming more deliberative and reflecting on future consequences.”

"Everyone is recording the police, except for themselves," Ariel told the Press Association. "But we are about to face a turning point. I think in 25 years all officers will be using a camera."

Sources: Criminology and Criminal Justice Journals, BBC, Press Association via Shropshire Star, AP via WREX, ACLU, CNN, The Washington Times / Photo credit: BostonNewsNow/Twitter

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