Public Safety & Homeland Security

Study Finds Negative Effects of Police-Worn Body Cameras

A new study has found that when police-worn body cameras are in play, citizen assaults on cops went up.

by Megan Guza, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review / June 2, 2016
Shelby County Sheriff's Department SRO Joseph Fox wears a personal body camera while on duty on Oct. 15, 2014. TNS/Stan Carroll

(TNS) -- While most research suggests that police-worn body cameras could improve cops' relations with the public, a study released this month suggests the opposite.

In any case, experts say getting the best results depends on how the cameras are utilized.

“As simplistic as it seems to put a ... camera on your hat or shoulder, the technology is out of pace with reality, and laws are out of pace with current conditions,” said John Rago, a Duquesne University law professor who studies police practices.

He noted that much of the research done shows the cameras have a calming effect on police and the public they interact with, such as a study published in spring 2015 that found officers in Mesa, Ariz., performed nearly 10 percent more controversial stop-and-frisks when they were not wearing cameras. Those wearing them initiated 13 percent more interactions with citizens — generally viewed as positive — and they were 25 percent more likely to perceive the cameras as helpful.

A new study from Cambridge University — the largest of its kind so far — suggests cameras can have some negative effects.

The study looked at eight police units in England and Ireland and two in California and found that when police-worn body cameras were in play, citizen assaults on cops went up. Police assaults on citizens stayed the same — unless individual cops could control when cameras were turned on, in which case police assaults on citizens rose dramatically.

Beth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, said the data raise questions. Pittsburgh police are using cameras as part of a pilot program.

“Who knows if that increase in assaults on officers ... if it's something that's real, maybe under-reported before, or just what's going on with that reporting,” she said. “It always leads to more questions.”

Rago agreed, saying the key to positive results is proper planning and procedures.

“There's a great deal of mischief-making that could be done if we just put cameras on people and said, ‘Go out and film everything,' ” he said. “There needs to be published protocol, adequate training and clear Right to Know standards.”

He said police officials and lawmakers must deal with privacy laws, which are at the center of the body camera debate at a statewide level. Pennsylvania wiretapping laws create a gray area on whether the cameras would be completely legal if they are worn inside a civilian's home.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been working since last year on a bill that would change the state wiretapping law to address body camera concerns.

Greenleaf said that he had not read the Cambridge study, but all data he has seen have indicated positive effects.

“Numerous studies have said the camera has ... a calming effect, and everybody is on better behavior,” he said.

State law has limited the expansion of camera use.

The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police last fall received a $250,000 grant from the Department of Justice to buy 50 more cameras, as well as storage and equipment, adding to the 35 that motorcycle and bicycle officers use, according to Public Safety spokeswoman Emily Schaffer.

Schaffer said the department is in the pilot phase, and the department has been testing the body cameras on officers in the zones. She noted that the law keeps officers from filming inside people's homes, “so their interactions that are recorded are limited.”

Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay said that while he could not comment on the Cambridge study without going through the intricacies of the data, he noted that camera technology is evolving at a rapid pace — faster than the supporting research.

He said the bureau will conduct its own control study to determine the behavioral impact on officers and the public.

Rago said that path is the way to go. He said departments are grappling with procedural variables, and while there should be a baseline best practice, the bottom line is that each individual department will have to tweak body camera policies to fit their unique department.

It's an issue everywhere, he said, but the results will be worth it: “The reality is it is amazing that virtually every state in the country is struggling with trying to come up with the right type of legislation so that full deployment of body cameras can be realized,” Rago said.

©2016 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.