Much has been written in the past few days about a recent study of 2,600 police officers in Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, which concluded that body cameras have no statistically significant
impact on police officers’ use of force.
This is perhaps less surprising a finding than some commentators suggest.
A body camera might prevent the odd swear word or inappropriate comment when an officer is relaxed while conscious of the device attached to their ballistic vest. But in a heated situation where force becomes necessary, it is instinct rather than careful consideration that takes over, with more deeply ingrained behaviors coming to the fore. If the instinct to use force is deeply ingrained, it doesn’t matter whether a camera is rolling.
That said, cameras are not useless. They just serve a different purpose: rather than changing ingrained behaviors, they illuminate them for police and public scrutiny.
Well-led police departments shape ingrained behaviors in their officers in two ways. Specialist training in communication, self-defense and firearms is intended to increase a police officer’s capacity to make the right decisions and actions under pressure. When a police officer uses force, the situation is often tense, Adrenalin is running high, and the instinctive responses of fight or flight kick in.
Primarily it is police training – honed over decades – that prevents a police officer from fighting or running away. Techniques like role play introduce scenarios to the brain in a controlled, safe environment so when a similar scenario occurs on the job, the police officer is more likely to act in a proportionate, measured, legal and professional manner.
The methods of recruitment and selection into a police department are also crucial aspects in shaping the behaviors of officers. Behavior is, of course, dictated by the police officers themselves – their character, values and innate abilities. Some people process information in a crisis better than others. Some people remain calm. Others tend to panic. Recruitment and selection into a police department remains one of the most critical and challenging elements of modern policing: police departments must select rookies based on their character, ethical values and decision-making under pressure. At entry, departments are able to select for the behaviors they wish to foster.
But the question remains: if body cameras don’t actually influence officer behavior in the ways some hoped, what is their value?
We need to question the assumption that transparency and accountability tools will directly improve performance. Indeed, emerging literature suggests transparency and accountability practices may actually change the behavior of those observed for worse, rather than better, in the private and public sectors.
But simply because an oversight practice does not directly change behavior does not mean it serves no useful purpose.
It may be helpful to view body cameras like any other transparency or accountability tool: as both a “disinfectant” (removing unwanted bad actions before they occur due to knowledge of being observed) and “flashlight” (revealing information that can be used later, e.g. the recordings of body cameras). It seems body cameras may lack potency as disinfectant. But being a bad disinfectant actually increases cameras’ usefulness as a flashlight.
So the apparent failure of body cameras as disinfectant ought to give us more confidence in their role and value as a flashlight. The tapes produced by body cameras show us what police would do even in the absence of cameras as regards the use of force—what their ingrained behaviors are. This makes these video records all the more valuable in understanding police performance.
The value of body cameras as flashlights cannot be underestimated. More accurate criminal investigations, protection against miscarriages of justice for both the public and police officers, and improved training and standards through analysis of incidents are all real, tangible benefits. This treasure chest of footage is a long way off being mined to its full potential, and was no doubt discussed by the 15,000+ delegates in the workshops and hallways at the recent International Association of Chiefs of Police annual conference in Philadelphia
Body cameras have been sold as a silver-bullet solution, a newfangled quick fix to cure policing of its public trust deficit. Instead, police behavior will continue to be shaped most by recruitment, selection, and training of police departments. But the footage gathered from body cameras may yet prove a valuable tool for understanding where training fails and where recruitment and selection can be improved. Body cameras can be useful as diagnostic rather than prescription: they can show us where ingrained police behavior has gone awry. All the better that they produce public video that police forces and critics alike can observe and interrogate.
That body cameras are more a flashlight and not disinfectant as an accountability or transparency tool, if confirmed by further research, does not make them less useful; only differently useful. We as a society are still exploring where, when, and how they add most value.
Dan Honig is an assistant professor of international development at Johns Hopkins SAIS. His forthcoming book explores when top-down controls and reporting undermine performance in the delivery of foreign aid.
Jayme Johnson is an adjunct professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University in Washington, DC. He previously worked for 10 years in London’s Metropolitan Police.