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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.]