Complaints fall dramatically with use of body-worn video cameras

Prompted by Obama's call for a national roll-out of police body cameras, the Washington Post reported in December on their successful use in a regional airport in Missouri. Springfield-Branson is a small airport about 200 miles from Ferguson. They have been significantly ahead of the curve in their use of the technology; their police officers have been wearing body cameras since 2008.

In that time they have seen complaints against their officers plummet – from several a week to reportedly less than one a month. Springfield-Branson offers flights to 11 US cities and police supervisor Kevin Houseman explained how the use of body-mounted video has a dramatic impact on confrontations between the public and his officers.

Houseman said “people can see the cameras so they act out less. Officers who know they are being recorded tend to be on their best behaviour.” He also pointed out that those disputes that did arise were often settled swiftly once the complainant was shown the footage from an incident.

Trials have undoubtedly shown that the use of body cameras can deescalate tensions at the public interface and this is of considerable interest to the aviation industry. Airlines and airport authorities are increasingly keen to adopt the technology within their security systems. This is in line with initiatives in adjacent transport security sectors within the UK.

Police body cameras and behaviour

A US study reveals that body worn cameras have a significant impact on the conduct of both wearer and subject.

The presence of a body camera worn by a police officer provokes heightened self-awareness leading to modified behaviour in both parties. There is one US study that is frequently referenced regarding the behavioural influence of BWV technology. The results from the 2012 trial of body cameras in Rialto, California were published in November and reflect findings from a joint initiative by the Rialto police and University of Cambridge (Rialto) Institute of Criminology.

The report was published in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology and is largely recognised as an authoritative study on the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers and how they impact on their interaction with the public.

59% drop in use of force & 87% drop in police complaints
It was first published under the title “Self-awareness to being watched and socially desirable behaviour: A Field Experiment on the Effects of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force." This academic study has been widely cited in both UK and US media. It gained renewed attention following a succession of controversial police shootings in 2014 and President Obama's call for funding to deploy 50,000 cameras. Results from the 12 month period include a 59% drop in the use of force by officers and an 87% drop in complaints against officers.

Co-author of the report is Dr Alex Sutherland from Cambridge University (England). He said the experiment "showed that evidence capture is just one output of body-worn video, and the technology is perhaps most effective at actually preventing escalation during police-public interactions: whether abusive behaviour towards police or unnecessary use-of-force by police."

Self-awareness promotes prosocial behaviour
There is a presupposition that people alter their conduct when they become aware that they are being observed. It follows that this self-awareness engenders more submissive or socially-acceptable behaviour, particularly when the observing party is an authority or rule-enforcing.

'Deterrence theory' is the expectation that surveillance leads to self-awareness, which itself provokes an instinct that tends towards compliance. This response relies on a spectrum of emotion from submission to social norms, to apprehension of consequences such as punishment or prosecution. Certainly, the human presence of rule-enforcing figures such as police officers can deter non-cooperative behaviour. The suggestion of being videoed can amplify this behavioural response as the threat of the perceived outcome (shame or punishment) is at it's greatest.

Visual cues such as signs advising of CCTV presence or traffic cameras are proven to encourage modified behaviour, resulting in less crime in car-parks or reduced speeding offences and associated injuries or death.

The suggestion of being watched
A number of studies have shown that even the subliminal suggestion of surveillance can provoke prosocial responses. Displaying an image of a pair of eyes can prompt positive behaviour; separating recycling, clearing food trays or putting money in a charity bucket for example. (University of Newcastle paper). Conceptually there is appeal in the theory that cameras can inspire positive actions. Deterrence theory by extension looks at how surveillance can deter socially undesirable behaviour. Research has focused on CCTV in public spaces or speeding cameras, and both are shown to trigger the positive responses that follow on from heightened self-awareness.

Oddly though, there is no specific academic research as yet on the now ubiquitous mobile phone as a recording device. Instinct and adjacent studies would lead us to expect that the presence of personal mobile cameras affect behaviour and situations. Alternatively, perhaps their very ubiquity dilutes their influence. In fact both these arguments are used to qualify the push for body cameras on law enforcement officers; proponents (and studies) suggest that camera presence can modify behaviour, whilst simultaneously claiming that society will acquiesce to the technology as we are already conditioned to the concept of being photographed and recorded.

Use of force under the spotlight
If we have become habituated to surveillance and video the issue with BWV is who is holding or wearing the camera. The Rialto study hypothesised that 'rational human beings including police officers are less likely to embrace socially undesirable behaviour when they are being videotaped'.

Use of force by U.S. law enforcement officers was under continual spotlight in 2014 in the wake of a succession of high profile incidents. The death of Eric Garner following a police chokehold in Staten Island in the summer sparked considerable controversy and unrest. The case was particularly pertinent to the debate over BWV because a bystander captured the encounter on a mobile phone. However whilst the video of Eric Garner's death was certainly of evidential relevance after the event, the spontaneous filming by a third party does not suggest that body cameras are ineffective as some claimed. It would not have triggered the same self-awareness and subsequent behaviour modification as exhibited with the use of habitual institutionalised officer-worn camera deployment.

The field experiment in Rialto set out to measure the effect of wearing visible body cameras by frontline officers by looking specifically at such use of force incidents. During the period under scrutiny such incidents along with the number of complaints against officers showed a dramatic reduction on previous years. Although not explicitly stated, the implication is that the numbers can be attributed to modified behaviour by both officer and subject due to the level of self-awareness provoked by the presence of the camera and the potential video record.

The complete Rialto report can be read here.