Police Performance Massively Improved by Surveillance

By Carlton Purvis, Published May 22, 2013, 12:00am EDT

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 [link no longer available] 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 [link no longer available] 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.


Here's video of a foot chase as captured by one of the cameras: 

The Results By The Numbers

During the year-long study officers saw 3,600 interactions per month and recorded more than 50,000 hours of interactions. Farrar found that having officers wear the cameras led to an 88% reduction in officer complaints and a 66% reduction in use-of-force incidents, and every use-of-force incident was caught on camera. There was also a reduction in assaults on police officers. The chief also found that there were twice as many use-of-force incidents on shifts where officers were not wearing cameras. Officers saw 3,000 more interactions with the public during the study than they did in the 12 months prior. 

In use-of-force incidents with officers wearing cameras, weapons were rarely used. In all of those cases officers were responding to a physical threat.

In four incidents involving officers without cameras officers used force without being threatened. That never happened with officers that used cameras says the chief. 

The police chief feels the study shows that body cameras work as a deterrent for both police officers and the public, saying the study shows what happens when certainty of apprehension is set at 100%. “When you put a noticeable camera on anyone, you tend change your behavior and tend to be a little bit more professional,” he said. Videos of the incidents reflected an increase in professionalism from both the police and the public and allowed them to capture what he called “best evidence,” a complete and accurate record of what went on during each contact. 

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After seeing the results he says he decided to add six more months onto the study. After it ends on July 1st, the cameras will be implemented department-wide for all uniformed offices, patrol units, the traffic division and street crime units.

Other Benefits

Before deploying the cameras officers were required to attend instructional briefings and take an opinion survey. For the most part, the officers were receptive to the cameras (“Of course the younger ones tend to be a little more tech savvy. They were a little more accepting than some of the tenured officers,” the chief said.)

The survey was administered again halfway through the experiment, and although there were not many noticeable changes in officer’s opinions about the cameras, it did show higher levels of acceptance, job satisfaction, feeling of authority and self legitimacy. 

“I think sometimes law enforcement isn’t viewed as legitimate," the chief said. The media throws something on TV, and it’s a small snippet of the incident. These cameras capture the whole incident from start to finish. Now we can spend less time dealing with frivolous complaints and get a feeling of overall legitimacy when it comes to policing.”

“This study wasn’t for the Rialto PD. This is something a little bigger. This is something for the law enforcement profession,” he said. He hopes that in the future more departments will adopt the practice.

ACLU Opinion

"We like them with reservations and caveats because of their ability to serve as an oversight mechanism for the police," said ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. Stanley says through technology or policies officers shouldn't have control of turning the cameras on and off. Departments should also have clear policies surrounding access to video, use of recordings and public disclosure.

"The check and balance potential is strong, but it does have privacy implications," Stanley said. "They could be going into someones house and having conversations with victims -- and all of that is being recorded. No one wants to see that [end up] on CNN."

Stanley says the results of the study are common sense and show that cameras are a very powerful deterrent to things, including bad behavior by police. 

IPVM Analysis

The results of this study certainly warrant further studies on this topic. What was not included in the study, public perceptions of the cameras, could shed additional light on why the difference between watched and unwatched interactions were so dramatic. Body cameras would also be a good idea for departments, like the LAPD, with a history of excessive force. The cost may be steep for smaller agencies, but DHS technology grants could make it possible for some (Rialto PD used a DHS grant). 

Combined with better use of force training and public education this could be a great transparency tool and reduce the number of complaints. The cameras seemed to have a visible impact officer conduct, but there are still going to be cases, like this one from another city in California, where even with the camera on, officers are still going to misbehave and police bury the video. The effectiveness of body cameras also relies on the willingness of police departments to actually pursue claims of misconduct. The chief says the cameras set the certainty of apprehension to 100%, but that is only 100% if the agency actually punishes officers who break the rules.

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