In my last post, I described the increasing interest in the use of body worn video (BWV) camera systems by police. These systems have been in use for more than five years in the UK, where pilot studies (cited in my article in the Texas Tech Law Review) have largely approved of them; police officers in the U.K. who have used BWV have become its biggest supporters.
Now, we have the first rigorous study of the use of BWV in a U.S. police department. In Rialto, California, Police Chief Tony Farrar became interested in the potential of BWV, and decided he wanted not just to have his officers try them, but to accurately measure their impact. Rialto has a department of 60 sworn officers. Farrar teamed with researcher Dr. Barak Ariel of Cambridge University, and the result is “Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Use of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force.” The bottom line of the study: on police shifts using in which officers used BWV, police use of force dropped 50 percent compared to shifts with no cameras; complaints against police were ten times higher on shifts without BWV compared to shifts using them. According to a short description from the web site of the Police Foundation, where Chief Farrar is an Executive Fellow, the “extensive yearlong study” was a randomized controlled trial of “body-worn video cameras used in police patrol practices.”
Cameras were deployed to all patrol officers in the Rialto (CA) Police Department. Every police patrol shift during the 12-month period was assigned to experimental or control conditions. Wearing cameras was associated with dramatic reductions in use-of-force and complaints against officers.
It’s true of course that the Rialto Police Department is small compared to the NYPD, where the judge deciding the stop and frisk case has ordered that the police begin to use the cameras in some areas of New York City. But that does not mean that BWV could not work in New York, and it certainly does not mean it is not worth trying the systems. Perhaps more important, far more American police departments are closer in size to Rialto’s force than to New York.
The study is worth a good long look for anyone interested in the safety of police and the public, in improved police services, in protection of officers from bogus complaints, and in police accountability. At the very least, it tells us that BWV should not be dismissed out of hand; it needs to be tried.