Force Science News #230:

New study measures impact of body cams on complaints, force use

FS Training Note: Congratulations to the 80 graduates of the Force Science Certification Course conducted last week (5/13 - 5/17) in Glenview, IL just outside of Chicago. They proudly represented 51 different agencies (a record number of individual departments represented in one class to date) from 13 states and provinces and two countries. Their level of focus, energy and learning throughout the week was stellar and we're now proud to count them among the rapidly growing number of professionals certified in Force Science Analysis. Well done! Also, a very special thanks to Sgt. Jim Foley and the Glenview Police Department for their tremendous hospitality. [Click here for the remaining 2013 FS Certification Course schedule and the beginning of 2014 or visit www.forcescience.org].

 

In this issue:

 

I. New study measures impact of body cams on complaints, force use

II. What the "bad guy" saw during FSI's vehicle stop study

 

I. New study measures impact of body cams on complaints, force use

 

Fewer citizen complaints, fewer uses of force.

 

According to a yearlong field study by a police department in southern California, those are the dual benefits of having patrol officers wear body cameras that record their public interactions.

 

Indeed, the experiment has yielded such an "amazing" outcome that Chief William Farrar of the Rialto PD told Force Science News he plans to permanently equip his uniformed personnel with body cams, in the belief that when civilians and cops alike are conscious of being recorded, they tend to modify their behavior in positive ways that result in reduced conflict.

 

Farrar, a 31-year law enforcement veteran, launched the study in February 2012, soon after becoming chief in Rialto, a city of 100,000 that is part of the metropolitan corridor sprawling east from Los Angeles. A mid-size agency (115 sworn), the PD handles about 3,000 property crimes and 500 violent offenses a year, including a homicide toll that's 50% higher than the national rate for municipalities that size.

 

A technology buff, Farrar was curious about what impact, if any, a new generation of miniaturized body-worn cameras might have on field contacts. Whatever the findings, he intended to include them in a thesis he was writing for a master's degree in applied criminology and police management.

 

GEAR. At about $1,000 apiece, the department bought some five dozen HD Axon Flex video/audio cameras manufactured by Taser International, Inc. These small yet highly visible devices, powered by a pocket-size battery pack, attach securely to sunglasses, a ball cap, a shirt collar, or a head mount and, when recording, capture a wide-angle, full-color view of what an officer is facing.

 

The video automatically uploads to a computerized storage and management unit, where it can be accessed for review. However, the file is tamper-proof; it cannot be deleted or altered in any way.

 

TEST. With union cooperation, each of Rialto's 54 uniformed patrol officers was issued a personal camera and given practice time to get familiar with it. Then by random selection, officers were told to wear the device throughout some of their shifts ("experiment days") but not others ("control days") over the course of 12 months.

 

Experiment and control days were essentially equalized across 988 shifts. At any given time, about half the department's frontline force was wearing cameras.

 

On experiment days, officers were to push their camera "record" button before each public contact, except when taking time to do so might jeopardize them in an urgent and dangerous situation. After shift, they could review their own video and were free to use their recordings as a memory refresher when writing reports.

 

In all, more than 50,000 hours of police/public interactions were recorded.

 

RESULTS. Farrar describes the before-and-after figures for complaints and uses of force as "simply amazing." Citizen complaints about perceived officer misconduct or poor performance dropped from 24 during the 12 months before the experiment to 3 during the test period, a decline of nearly 88%. In some cases, citizens who intended to file grievances decided not to after they were shown the video of the interaction at issue.

 

"I thought complaints might go down a bit because of the cameras," Farrar says, "but I was very surprised at the truly dramatic decrease."

 

Uses of force plunged from 61 during the pre-camera year to 25 during the test year, a 60% drop. When force was used, more than twice the number of incidents occurred on non-camera shifts as when the devices were worn.

 

"That tells me that the camera is a mechanism that triggers a change in behavior," Farrar says. "I think it's a mixture: Officers become more professional, and citizens tend to behave better."

 

INTERPRETATION. In an academic article Farrar is preparing for publication, he elaborates. "[R]esearch across many disciplines of science suggest that most forms of species alter their behaviors once made aware that they are being observed," he writes.

 

"It seems that knowing with sufficient certainty that our behavior is being observed or judged affects various social cognitive processes. We experience public self-awareness, become more prone to socially acceptable behavior, and sense a heightened need to cooperate with rules....

 

"[C]ameras can make us self-conscious not only to the fact that we are being watched, but also to drive us into compliance.... When we become aware that a video camera is recording our actions, we become self-conscious that unacceptable behaviors are likely to be captured on film, and the perceived certainty of punishment is at its highest. 'Getting away' with rule breaking is thus far less convincible if you are being videotaped."

 

That, he reinforces, applies to officers and subjects alike.

 

Does Farrar sense that the camera's influence might lead officers to hold back on using force when it really should be used for their personal safety? And how about officers avoiding public contacts rather than risk looking bad on video?

 

Neither concern seems to be a problem, he says. "Actually, our patrol officers made 3,000 more contacts during the test year than the year before," he explains. "And during the experiment, we surveyed the officers' attitudes. They indicated that they didn't feel any significant change in their ability to do the job. They weren't afraid or hesitant to do what needed to be done on a daily basis."

 

THE FUTURE. Since the study officially ended in February, Farrar has extended the use of the cameras to see if any surprising new data might arise. By the end of the summer, he expects to make body cam use a permanent, full-time requirement for all uniformed personnel.

 

"The initial investment will more than pay out at the other end," he says. "We'll capture better evidence, save time and money on IA investigations, cut down on frivolous lawsuits, help the DA's office improve filings and conviction rates--any number of important benefits."

 

[Chief Farrar can be reached at: tfarrar@rialtopd.com. Our thanks to Greg Meyer and Dr. Alexis Artwohl, both graduates of the Force Science Analysis certification course, for bringing the Rialto study to our attention.]

 

II. What the "bad guy" saw during FSI's vehicle stop study

 

Anyone who has ever played a bad guy with murder on his mind in well-crafted scenario training says it's an incomparable learning experience. Scott Buhrmaster, vice president of operations for the Force Science Institute, is no exception.

 

"Having the opportunity to observe a traffic stop from the "other side" of the approach over and over again for several days can certainly be enlightening," Buhrmaster says. "It can give you a rare opportunity to spot examples of officers unwittingly making themselves vulnerable and therefore yield valuable survival reminders that can keep other officers safe."

 

Buhrmaster played the driver suspect during FSI's ground-breaking vehicle stop study reported in Transmission #224 of Force Science News [2/25/13]. More than 90 officer volunteers from various agencies approached his car one at a time, three times each, on what they believed was a "routine" traffic stop for speeding. During the contacts, Buhrmaster, seated behind the steering wheel, unexpectedly produced a pistol from a concealed spot near his right leg on the third approach and fired blank rounds at each officer.

 

The study monitored the officers' reactions and attempted to gauge which response was least likely to result in injury or death for the surprised LEOs. But as he waited for the right moment to attack, Buhrmaster picked up on valuable subtleties and was reminded of others that are not part of the official research record.

 

Recently, he shared highlights of his observations with FSN. These can make an effective review for roll call training.

 

APPROACH DEMEANOR. "The way the experiment was structured, I had to attack at some point and I had to catch the officer by surprise, without my gun being detected. So I was under pressure to assess how the officers' behavior might affect my actions," Buhrmaster explains. "I began 'reading' officers by watching their approach in my rearview mirrors. Their speed and stature gave me cues right away.

 

"If they came up real fast, in a hurried fashion, they gave the impression they just wanted to get the stop over with. They seemed too anxious. Too slow, they came across as unsure, overly cautious.

 

"The ones I read as least vulnerable walked with a medium-speed, determined gait and an erect stature. Not overly aggressive, just confident--and watching me. The impression that they were fully prepared to control the contact gave me pause."

 

INITIAL GREETING. Buhrmaster says the officers he judged (accurately) to be hardest to catch off guard were those who "spoke confidently and with good projection and were to the point and professional in their verbiage" on initial contact ("Hello, sir. The reason I stopped you is...").

 

They did not smile and did not engage in superficial banter ("Hello, sir. How're you doin' today? I'm sorry to bother you...."), yet did not come across as aloof, disinterested, or demeaning. "They were procedural without being unthinking or unaware. Their impression was one of determined professionalism, full of confidence and control. They made me think they were not going to be easily lured into my distracting dialog."

 

In contrast, officers who seemed "overly friendly--enthusiastic smiles, apologetic tone, demure posture--came across as vulnerable. Their focus seemed to be solely on keeping me from getting upset with them for having stopped me and they appeared to have lost their focus on their own safety considerations.

 

"I distinctly read them as wanting to move through the ticketing process as amiably as possible. They appeared to be intently focused on the fact that they were upsetting me and were looking for ways to defuse the emotional agitation but they did not appear to be focused on remaining aware of the potential for an assault.

 

Note: Officers who deliberately, and often effectively, use a good-ol'-boy guise as a ploy on criminal patrol-type stops need to remain conscious of their risks and tactics, because a committed killer could be emboldened by this demeanor.

 

HAND CONTROL. A noticeable number of officers did not ask to see Buhrmaster's right hand, even though it was hidden from their point of view. It was touching or gripping a 9mm semi-automatic between his leg and the center console. "A number of officers looked toward that area repeatedly, but did not ask to see that hand. It appears that their inability to see it was obviously troubling to them but they seemed unsure as to whether they had the right to order me to reveal it. This gave the impression of vulnerability."

 

Those few who did immediately ask Buhrmaster to make his hand visible "gave me great pause initially, because they seemed tactically astute." But then most were satisfied when he merely placed his hand on his thigh. And the even smaller minority who told him to put it on the steering wheel for the most part didn't remain conscious of the safer positioning for long.

 

"Within 10 to 15 seconds, they were focused on what I was saying and I could let my hand slide back to my thigh and then to the hidden position on the gun," he recalls. "It was obvious their situational awareness from a tactical perspective had deteriorated and their level of preparedness for a potential attack was diminished. I was able to wait for the very best time for me to produce the weapon and launch an attack."

 

OFFICER HAND PLACEMENT. In some cases, officers' own hand positioning played to the suspect's advantage. "Several put their hands in positions where they couldn't likely draw their sidearm quickly if I presented a threat," Buhrmaster says. Some, for example, gripped their ticket book firmly with both hands on approach and during initial contact. Others kept their thumbs hooked inside their duty belt. Still others stood with their hands crossed over one another in the center of their chest.

 

"These positions gave me the impression the officers were too relaxed and unprepared for trouble," Buhrmaster says.

 

DIVERSIONARY BAIT. In this scenario, the driver played the role of a "sovereign citizen" who rejected the authority of law enforcement to stop him. When asked for driver's license, registration, and proof of insurance, he presented officers with a sheaf of official-looking documents attesting to his "immunity."

 

Instead of ignoring these bogus papers and saying "This is not what I asked you for," a number of officers focused intently on reading what they'd been handed, in some cases looking up and away in contemplation. Some who called for backup turned their head completely away from him when using their shoulder-mounted mic.

 

"They took the bait of my diversion," Buhrmaster says. "They were locked onto the paper or the radio and not on me and what I was doing. It seemed that I had control over what they were thinking about and was successfully confusing them, making them more vulnerable."

 

Those who quickly realized the "documents" were irrelevant and were not sucked in to the suspect's gambit "gave the impression that they were stronger and harder to get the edge on, more intimidating targets from my standpoint."

 

GO FOR IT. "Incorporate playing the bad guy as part of your training," Buhrmaster advises. "I'd never had the opportunity to do it in this depth before, day after day, and it was a very eye-opening experience. You can hear about the suspect's perspective in a classroom or perhaps even from an offender himself, but you need to put yourself in that place to really feel it--and to realize how officer actions are the key to control and survival."

 

[Click here to watch a Discovery Channel video segment on the Force Science Traffic Stop Study]

 

Editor's note: We want to again thank the many officers who volunteered to participate in the Force Science Traffic Stop Study. Their willingness to do so was an invaluable contribution to keeping fellow officers safe and for that we are deeply grateful.

© 2014 Force Science Institute Ltd.