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ASU professor says cameras show good, bad and ugly sides of police work

Camera and flashlight

August 03, 2017

The story of cops and body-worn cameras changes constantly.

In the beginning, it was a way to placate community members outraged by a spate of police shootings in low-income areas.

But now that footage of these videos has started to emerge, the narrative is shifting. That’s because it reveals ugliness on both sides of the camera: suspects brandishing guns; police planting evidence; law enforcement shooting animals who attack; and belligerent citizens resisting arrest.

“When police officers wear body-worn cameras every day and across the country, you will start to capture these critical incidents,” said Michael D. White, a professor in ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the associate director of the CenterBoth the school and the center are part of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. for Violence Prevention and Community Safety.

“You’ll see the good, bad and the ugly. … It does capture everything, and we’re beginning to see many aspects to police work we’ve never seen before.”

Man in white shirt and blazer

Michael D. White

White is also the co-director of training and technical assistance for the U.S. Department of Justice's Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program, and prior to his work in academia, he was a deputy sheriff in Pennsylvania.

Whether the public embraces it or not, police-worn body cameras are gradually being adapted into law-enforcement agencies around the globe. It’s estimated that 18,000 police departments in the United States now have the technology. They like the technology because it gets results.

For example, a Cambridge University study of British and U.S. police shows a 93 percent decrease in the number of complaints made against officers when they are wearing body cameras. The devices, researchers believe, are reducing conflicts between police and the public because people who know they are being observed change their behavior.

To discuss this new dynamic in law enforcement, ASU Now turned to White for his take on this issue. 

Question: In your opinion, what gave rise to the use of body cameras for the police?

Answer: I think most people view police body-worn cameras as a response to the police community-relations issues that have been plaguing a number of jurisdictions since the summer of 2014. During that summer Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island and Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri. Since then there have been a series of police killings of citizens that have drawn public outrage and demands for police reform.

Police body-worn cameras emerged in that context. President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force designed remedies to a lot of the police race-relations problems that had emerged, and body-worn cameras featured prominently in that report. The U.S. Department of Justice since that time has devoted a lot of time to promoting the technology.

What should be noted is that most people feel as if the innovation came after the Ferguson incident. The fact of the matter is police have been investigating this technology for years before the summer of 2014. The interest was there, but after 2014 the interest had exploded.

Q: It has been said that body-worn cameras makes both sides of the law behave better. Are we seeing this?

A: Yes. If you think of the benefits of police body-worn cameras, a big piece of that puzzle is transparency, an effort to enhance police legitimacy and make citizens feel better about the cameras being there. Another part of it, though, is police accountability. The idea is that when police wear body-worn cameras they will presumably change their behavior for the better. They will be polite, won’t be as rude and won’t engage in any serious misconduct. Most people refer to this as having a civilizing effect, and it goes both ways. Presumably the citizen — if he or she knows they’re being recorded — will also behave better.

Researchers have tried to figure out and measure whether or not that behavior change is occurring. A couple of outcomes that researchers have focused on are use of force by police and citizen complaints against police. In many studies we have seen sizeable reductions in those two outcomes when police wear body-worn cameras. I would think that’s pretty persuasive evidence that behavior may be changing.

Q: What are some pros and cons of body-worn cameras?

A: One of the big benefits many departments have seen is the drop in complaints against officers and reductions in use of force.

Other benefits are that citizen support is very, very high for body-worn cameras. I actually did a study in Tempe and Spokane, Washington, of people who had interactions with police officers and were recorded. We interviewed several hundred citizens in both places and, again, the support was very high.

The final benefit is the evidentiary value. The video and audio can be very useful in terms of resolving citizen complaints. The cameras allow a police sergeant to go and watch a video if a complaint has been launched, and determine if the allegation is true. The other piece of the evidentiary value is that video can be used by prosecution as evidence in a trial.

In terms of concerns with police body-worn cameras, one issue is privacy. There are two sides of that coin. The first is police officer privacy. Officers have expressed concerns regarding activation, when it should be on. What if they have to go to the bathroom or what if they want to have a private conversation with an informant? But the more serious side of the coin is citizen privacy. The rules and laws governing citizen privacy vary quite a bit from state law.

In a couple of recent cases, we’ve seen some other concerns play out in the media. The first is the Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed a citizen. The officer had a body-worn camera, but he did not activate it. One of the concerns that departments are wrestling with right now is how are they going to monitor officer activation compliance and what are they going to do with officers with low compliance rates? Is there going to be an informal response? Graduated discipline? Clearly for me, that’s a big one. Departments are going to have to develop plans and policies to address this issue.

Q: In regards to non-activation, are you finding that officers do not want to comply, or are they simply forgetting when they get caught up in the heat of the moment?

A: It’s a combination of things happening. Clearly there’s a muscle-memory component to this. For example, let’s say you have an officer who’s been on the job for 15 years … he has a lot of street knowledge, does his or her job very well, then all of a sudden they’re given this new piece of equipment. Obviously, it will take some time for this officer to get used to the new piece of equipment.

In other cases, officers use discretion to not activate. It could be they’re talking to someone and don’t want to record the conversation, be it an informant or victim. And it could also be deliberate. For example, an officer is engaging in illegal activity that they don’t want captured on video like it appears to be the case in Baltimore where the officer was allegedly planting evidence and attempted to activate after the evidence was planted. What the officer didn’t realize was that the body-worn camera continuously records 30 seconds of video prior to activation. So it appears that the video actually captured the officer planting evidence.

Q: The cameras seem to capture all the ugly aspects of police work, from an officer planting evidence to a dog who’s about to attack to a criminal running out of an alley with a gun in his hand. It captures moments we didn’t expect to see.

A: There are TV shows that depict “real life” police work, but most of them, like “Cops,” are very staged. Critical incidents like a police shooting or a foot or car pursuit are pretty rare events. They are typically not captured in those types of TV shows. When police officers wear body-worn cameras every day and across the country, you will start to capture these critical incidents. You’ll see the good, bad and the ugly.

I was a deputy sheriff for a few years back in the early 1990s, and I know that police work can be and look brutal. Officers are authorized to use force, and when they do in many cases — even if it is appropriate — it looks very bad.

The other side of that is that you can capture the heroics of police work. One of the Spokane officers in our study was wearing a body-worn camera when he responded to a woman who was trapped in a burning vehicle. The camera caught him rescuing her literally seconds before she would have been burned to death. That particular incident received so much attention that the police officer and the woman he saved ended up on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” It does capture everything, and we’re beginning to see many aspects to police work we’ve never seen before.

Q: Let’s talk dollars and cents. Buying the initial technology is one cost, but are there other hidden costs taxpayers don’t know about?

A: There’s hidden costs if police don’t do their homework. The costs of operating a body-worn program are fairly well known now. There are resources out there that a police chief can use to learn about costs. So if you don’t do your homework, yes, you’ll be surprised by the costs. The cameras themselves come at a cost, but they’re relatively inexpensive compared to the other costs of the program.

The real big cost is in data storage. On a standard 10-hour shift a police officer will record anywhere from two to four hours of video. If you have hundreds of officers doing that every single day, in every week in every month of every year, you’re generating a huge amount of video and audio evidence and it has to be stored. The costs for data storage can be significant.

The other costs are what it takes to manage the program internally. Most likely police departments will have to reassign personnel to specifically manage the program. The resource and manpower requirements are fairly significant.

Q: I imagine policies widely vary from the departments who are employing body-worn cameras. What can that mean?

A: We conducted a study of 54 agencies who are using body-worn cameras. We were looking at variations in the policies in key issues such as activation, deactivation, citizen notification, officer authority to review, and supervisor authority to review. We found significant variation in many of these issues across the 54 agencies. There is no model standard on what a policy should say about specific issues from point A to point Z.

To assist agencies, we developed a policy review scorecard to assess the comprehensiveness of body-worn camera policy. Any agency that receives federal money for body-worn cameras goes through a policy review process with our scorecard.

Q: What’s the future of this technology, and what should we as citizens be looking at or asking?

A: It’s clear to me that the train has left the station. We don’t have a good estimate right now regarding how many departments have body-worn camera programs. There are about 18,000 police departments in the United States, and my estimate is that we’re now approaching the halfway mark of departments who have body-worn camera programs. I believe it will continue to expand because citizens are now expecting their police officers to be wearing cameras, and when they’re not, they want to know why not.

Q: Do you feel this is a positive step for law enforcement?

A: I think it’s probably the single most important innovation in policing in the last 30 years. There are many, many upsides for all folks involved — police, citizens, local government — which is why we’ve seen such widespread support from different stakeholders. There are issues and concerns, but I haven’t come across a concern that is insurmountable. Departments need to be thoughtful, collaborative and patient as they begin their program. If they take that approach, they will be able to overcome the obstacles that will present themselves. 

Top photo: A typical police body-worn camera. Photo courtesy of Axon Body Camera

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