Police Fatally Shoot Suspects
In 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, made international headlines after a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown. Several other instances of police shooting unarmed suspects around the country, including the shooting of Keith Scott in 2016 in Charlotte, have garnered attention. Before, during, and especially after these incidents, both citizens and public officials alike have advocated for police officers to use body cameras as a deterrent to police brutality and wrongful shootings of suspects.
Many believed that police officers wearing body cameras while encountering suspects would create more transparency. People also also thought that there would be more validity when civilians made claims of police brutality and wrongful police shootings. In addition, many felt that body cameras would clearly show if officers behaved appropriately when using lethal force in encounters with suspects.
While it made logical sense to use body cameras—people being watched would behave better—a report released in 2017 shows otherwise. More on that to come…
Let’s get back to this question: Why was there a prevailing notion that body cameras would deter police brutality? Again, people tend to simply do the right thing more frequently when they know they’re being watched. Studies have shown that children on school buses behave much better when there is a camera in place. In fact, there are studies that even show when people think they’re being watched (e.g., fake cameras being used), they behave better than they would otherwise.
Research on Police Brutality and the Use of Body Cameras
“We found that body-worn cameras had no statistically significant average effects on any of the measured outcomes,” said a researcher with the city government group, The Lab @ DC. In other words, complaints from civilians, arrests for disorderly conduct, charges of police brutality, and every other measurable detail showed no difference between officers who were assigned body cameras and those who were not. The landmark study took place tracking over 2,000 Washington, D.C. police officers over the course of several months.
What does this really mean?
Does it mean that civilians have possibly been reporting police brutality before the use of cameras, but the camera footage has actually proved otherwise? As such, does it mean there is no police brutality to reduce because it wasn’t as prevalent in the first place?
Does it mean the “bad cops” are less likely to remember (or care?) that they’re wearing cameras? Do they default back to their automatic, reflexive behavior and simply behave as they normally do, regardless if they’re wearing cameras?
The federal government and has already put aside several millions of dollars for police body cameras, so more cameras will likely be used. In light of this recent study on body cameras not really changing outcomes, are there any possible positives? For one thing, stories that explain encounters provided by both civilians and police should be able to be corroborated with objective data, specifically, body cam footage.
Such information should be able to help verify details of what really happened in a given incident, and in turn support the version provided by the civilian, or the police officer, and help determine what laws are being broken, and if the police and citizen are both doing what they need to be doing in a given situation.