ASU criminologists dispel myths about police body cameras
In an article published in the online magazine Slate, Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice professors Justin Ready and Jacob Young address three myths about the use of officer-worn video cameras.
The researchers have been studying the use of cameras by the Mesa Police Department and examining the outcomes of interactions with citizens. Both believe the technology holds tremendous promise, but are concerned about unrealistic expectations attributed to the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.
Many pundits have suggested that officer-worn cameras could have prevented the civil unrest that has transpired in Ferguson, Missouri, last month. The city experienced heated demonstrations and looting after a white police officer shot an 18-year old black teenager who had assaulted him. In the wake of the shooting, the city's police department has equipped its officers with uniform-mounted video cameras.
"There are a lot of these expectations about the ability of this technology to prevent or thwart these types of problems," says Ready in an interview about the article. "But do we have unrealistic expectations of this technology. And if so, why?"
The researchers say the first myth about the use of such cameras is the belief that video evidence is completely objective and free of interpretation. To the contrary, the professors say that people can have different perspectives of the same video.
"People interpret what they see on video through the filter of their own experiences," the professors write in Slate.
In a separate interview, Young, an expert on social networks, says perception – not reality – influences how we see what was recorded.
“A lot of times in high-profile cases, the facts may become irrelevant to an individual’s beliefs about what actually happened. Perception is everything," says Young. "It’s this idea that even if you had an objective account of what occurred, the meaning of what happened is subjective and particular to the individual viewer.”
A second myth is that technology will always improve interactions between officers and citizens since both parties are being recorded. While cameras can be helpful in the majority of situations officers encounter, the criminologists point out that most interactions involve mediating disputes or helping those in need. In some instances, cameras could actually make things worse in situations where recording may interfere with an officer’s responsibility of enforcing the law. They cite an example of an officer trying to comfort a teenage girl who lived in an abusive home. They write that the officer "found it difficult to show compassion and respect for her privacy with the camera rolling."
The last myth is that body-worn video cameras will lessen civil unrest and controversy because the video that is captured is “objective.” Ready and Young suggest it's possible for such video to have a polarizing effect.
"People with strong convictions about what has transpired during a police shooting may use the ‘facts’ that they see in the video footage to support their expectations about what occurred in the blind spots," they write.
Overall, the two researchers suggest officer-worn video cameras will have a positive effect on policing. They point to the research they conducted in Mesa where one group of 50 officers wore cameras, and another group of 50 did not. They found officers with cameras conducted significantly fewer stop and frisks (and thus, arrests) than officers without the cameras. They also wrote more tickets, suggesting they were concerned with the consequences of letting someone go for a minor violation.
The researchers point out that, despite the limitations of video evidence, equipping officers with cameras will probably have the most impact by helping prevent problematic interactions among officers and citizens.
"The presence of a camera influences behavior," notes Young. "It's not necessarily having a recording of the event to evaluate after an incident, it's the preventing of particular actions before they transpire."