A California city police chief used his department to conduct an experiment on the power of surveillance. For a year, officers were fitted with cameras to record every interaction they had with the public. Would the cameras help reduce complaints against police or use-of-force incidents? What he found was that both fell dramatically. For this note, we interviewed the police chief about his research (see his full study) and findings. Additionally, we spoke with the ACLU for their feedback.
Body Cameras vs CCTV
Past research, from a number of sources shows, that humans will exhibit more socially acceptable behavior when they know they are being watched. If the person watching is a boss, supervisor or authority figure the effect is even more pronounced. “What is less known,” Police Chief William A. Farrar says, “is what happens when the observer is not a ‘real person’, and whether being videotaped can have an effect on aggression and violence.”
The chief says that “when certainty of apprehension for wrongdoing is high, socially and morally-unacceptable acts are dramatically less likely to occur.” His hypothesis was that mobile cameras would give that extra self-awareness to deter police and the public from socially unacceptable behavior.
CCTV is a valuable deterrent, but does not provide that high rate of certainty of apprehension, he said. “When people see an officer wearing a camera, their self-awareness is heightened a bit more.” Chief Farrar says studies of CCTV in public places and speed cameras show that a reduction in undesired behavior is usually minimal. It is that extra “dosage” of self-awareness that comes with seeing a camera being worn by an officer that makes the difference, he said.
For one year, he randomly assigned half the department's shifts to wear body mounted cameras that would record interactions with the public. At any given time, 50% of the Rialto police force was wearing a camera. Officers were instructed to turn the camera on before any interaction with the public.
He tracked both use-of-force incidents (anything from “compliance holds” to pepper spray, Tasers, and firearms) and public complaints.
The camera is a Taser Axon Flex, a three-inch long, miniature camera that can be mounted anywhere from cars to sunglasses to collars and hats. It has a 12-hour battery life and can hold 5-6 hours of footage. It also records audio. The camera has a buffer feature that constantly records the last 30 seconds so once an officer turns the camera on, there is a record of what happened leading up to the recording. When the camera is docked to charge the battery at the end of a shift, footage for the day is automatically uploaded to an officer’s profile on Evidence.com, Taser’s cloud storage service. The cost is around $1200 per camera, which includes cameras, a battery pack, charger and a mounting kit.