Police Performance Massively Improved by Surveillance

Author: Carlton Purvis, Published on May 22, 2013

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.

The Method

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 Tool

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.


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Comments (10)

I can think of many times when I would have loved to have video and audio of an interaction with a citizen who later claimed I was rude or had used force against them when they were doing nothing to cause me to have to use force.

So I was looking for the statistic in the study on how many complaints against officers were either deemed "exonerated" (which means the officer did exactly what the complaint says he did, but that was what the officer was supposed to do), or the officer was cleared because the complainant was lying about the incident. Unfortunately Rialto is too small, from the study:

"In terms of complaints against officers, we were unable to compute a treatment effect as planned, since the overall reduction was so large that there were not enough complaints to conduct any meaningful analyses (only one complaint lodged for an incident that has occurred during control conditions and two for incidents that occurred during treatment condition). Importantly, there was an overall reduction from 28 complaints filed lodged in the 12 months before the trial to the 3 during the trial - or 0.70 complaints per 1,000 contacts compared to .069 per 1,000 contacts."

I read that as the citizens don't file complaints against police when the citizen is lying about what happened because they know they are on camera and will be caught lying about it.

Great stuff. I'm all for this technology getting better. It will be especially useful for determining at trial if a consent to search was freely given voluntarily. It should eliminate a lot of court hearings on motions to suppress evidence.

Gator, great feedback! Two questions:

  • Do you think many police officers would object to this as 'big brother'?
  • What do you think about the cost? Those taser units I believe are $1,000+? Hard to justify or?

1) Some will. Mostly the older ones that are used to being lone rangers. The initial back lash against GPS units monitoring patrol car positions back to the dispatch center and supervisors (years ago) was huge. Most units quit working within 24 hours from damage. Now it's no big deal, it's accepted. The same will happen with body cams.

2) With studies like this the ROI will become obvious. Imagine all the staff hours used up investigating complaints against officers. If a department can take one detective out of Internal Affairs and put them back into doing what cops do best, that would pay for the cams alone. Rialto PD has 110 officers, so one investigator back on patrol would pay for all officers cams in one year.

And when factoring the reduction of law suits and civil payments, the numbers might become so clear over time that the city's Risk Manager may require the PD to outfit all officers with cams.

OR, this could all be smoke and mirrors if they are trying to justify the expenditure of funds....the study doesn't say if this was a federally funded grant. More studies need to be done, because it looks promising.

Sorry about the spelling, wish you had auto spell check! :)

Fascinating. Being of British origin, public surveillance and monitoring seem generally eminently resonable for both deterence and factual confirmation surrounding incidents. Ditto biometric data. Americans seem less sold on this approach.

Richard Dawkins another Brit, was asked if he believed in the jury system. He said: if I'm guilty, yes. I have a chance of being acquited. If I'm innocent, no. I have a chance of being convicted. (I am paraphrasing).

I think this monitoring concept really protects both parties from condition b) as much as condition a). The resulting evidence is a quantum improvement over each party's subjective recollection, not to mention a third party observer's subjective recollection.

The ACLU's stance is a little paradoxical. They don't want to give officers the ability to turn off the cameras, yet they are concerned about sensitive witness testimoney ending up on CNN. I don't understand their stance.

If an officer chooses to turn a camera off and an incident occurs, that is going to look far worse to the public and/or jury than if he didn't have the ability to record it in the first place. It seems departments could define clear rules defining when an officer is allowed to turn off his camera (and he could simply state qualifying reason on the recording before turning it off).

If I am allowing a police officer on to my private property or into my home, I would like the right to request that their cameras be turned off. Obviously if they find evidence of criminal activity once inside the cameras are going to come right back on, but at that point I have relinquished my right to privacy.

As a former twenty year law enforcement officer I wish we had that technology available back in the day. I personally bought and used a Radio Shack microcassette recorder with voice activation and used it religiously. The best $75 dollars I ever spent on equipment.

At my department, we have just deployed two VieVu body worn cameras. I have been initially been impressed with the quality of the video and the audio. We are providing to our bike patrol officers who have the greatest number of citizen to officer contacts in the field. As the number of federal consent decrees involving use of force suits expands nationally, I could see US D.o.J recommending these as a condition of the decree. On an officer safety front, I had heard (have not been able to verify) that a U.K. officer suffered a fractured skull after a suspect used the equipment against the officer in an arrest/use of force situation.

Mark, good feedback, thanks!

You got be thinking about use of force statistics. I found one (old) US gov report that cited 26,000 complaints per year on use of force, with 8% were sustained against the officer.

John:

Yes, as they say "the camera rarely blinks". I recall an IACP study which revealed that in 93% of the cases where a complaint is filed regarding police conduct and there is video evidence, the officer is exonerated. In the worst case scenario, the camera must speak for the officer who cannot speak for him/herself.

An interesting piece of news today (for a lot of reasons): A judge declared New York's stop and frisk program unconstitutional. Part of the ruling says the NYPD has to do a pilot program where five precincts fit officers with body cameras to record their interactions with the public. It'll be interesting to see how the results compare to this study.

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