It’s not hard to imagine that every police officer in every metropolitan force will soon be equipped with a body camera. As costs for both the unit and data storage decrease and as the public clamors for more accountability, cameras will become as ubiquitous as weapons and communication devices. What’s more difficult to imagine are the consequences.
For the past year, UNLV professor William Sousa has been leading the biggest study to date on two consequences—how the presence of a camera affects 1) officers’ use of force and 2) citizens’ complaints of police conduct. With the help of 400 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department officers, Sousa is examining the number of arrests, citations and other types of proactive activity. Half of the officers in the study were randomly assigned to wear cameras and the other half of the control group wasn’t. A presentation about the study, funded through a grant of nearly $550,000 by the National Institute of Justice, through the Virginia-based research firm CNA, is scheduled for a conference of the American Society of Criminology this week in Washington, D.C. Data will be compiled in the coming months, and an analysis will be ready early next year.
Whether police officers with cameras become more formal in how they relate to citizens is among the questions Sousa hopes to answer. “For a minor traffic violation, [an officer without a camera] might let someone off with a warning; now that the legal violation [is] on video, might the officers be more inclined to write the citation?”
Another hypothesis is whether camera-toting officers become less proactive in routine situations. “When they see a situation that requires a high amount of discretion [and] they might be concerned that discretion could later be challenged, they might be less inclined to engage in activity,” Sousa says. “We’re able to measure that by looking at person stops and vehicle stops, which are normally highly discretionary on the part of the officer.”
What will be harder to measure is the motivation behind behavior, from both sides of the law. Are officers behaving themselves more if they know a camera is rolling? Are citizens less likely to make false allegations of police misconduct, knowing their actions are on video?
Procedural and legal questions remain: Will it be voluntary or mandatory for officers to carry cameras? When are officers required to activate cameras? Will media be given access to video? Even if the use of cameras doesn’t substantially affect the number of times police use force or citizens complain of misconduct, “in the end, the value of the camera may be from the perspective of transparency—the willingness to be transparent,” Sousa says.