Do body cameras deter police misconduct? It’s complicated

  • A New Hampshire Department of Safety State Police vehicle. Are body cameras effective? Yes and no. Geoff Forester—Monitor file

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 8/25/2021 6:25:30 PM

As calls for police reform have intensified, one popular response has been to equip more officers with body cameras.

The idea is that increased monitoring of officers will deter misconduct and make it easier to discover and punish when it does happen. Body cameras have support from a broad range of stakeholders – if not always for the same reasons – including many police officials and activists.

Body-worn cameras have been studied more extensively and rigorously than many other policing changes. So do they actually improve officer behavior and increase accountability? The answer is complicated, according to experts.

Body-worn cameras “are a tool,” the researchers Michael D. White and Aili Malm write in “Cops, Cameras, and Crisis,” a book-length literature review published in 2020. “They are not a ‘silver bullet’ that can repair decades of mistrust between police and citizens. Nor can (body-worn cameras) single-handedly put an end to bad policing.”

Overall, the research indicates that body cameras tend to reduce complaints, though it’s unclear why. The studies examining the way officers use force, meanwhile, are more mixed. Researchers have found reductions in some places, but not others, and uncertainty remains about the average effect.

Still, cameras can provide internal affairs investigators and the public with a more objective record of what happened after a police shooting or other high-profile incident. And, advocates in New Hampshire say, they offer reassurance that it won’t just be a civilian’s word against an officer’s if something does occur.

Sean Johnson, a member of Black Lives Matter Seacoast’s leadership team, sees body cameras as “an extra layer of protection for officers as well as civilians of all races” that can help avoid he-said, she-said situations.

“You can’t dispute footage,” he said. “You can’t dispute things that are actually happening. You can get a different perspective, obviously. But what happens on tape is on tape.”

Impacts on use of force

Small devices worn on the person, body cameras capture interactions with civilians from an officer’s vantage point. Though they’ve been around for years, their adoption became more widespread starting in the mid-2010s, after a spate of highly publicized killings of Black people drew more attention to police violence.

In New Hampshire, body cameras have come up often since George Floyd’s death last year sparked discussions about police accountability.

The state’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT), formed after Floyd’s death, recommended that departments be encouraged to adopt body cameras.

In the most recent budget, state lawmakers set aside $1 million to help local police departments afford them. This month, the Executive Council also approved a $3.4 million, multi-year contract to equip state troopers with body and cruiser cameras starting this fall.

Promising results from early research raised hopes that cameras would meaningfully reduce the use of force. The first randomized controlled trial, conducted on the mid-size Rialto (Calif.) Police Department, randomly assigned some shifts to use body cameras. The results showed a substantial across-the-board decrease in uses of force, with the largest drop occurring when officers wore cameras.

But the literature has grown more mixed over time, with additional studies reporting use of force went down in some jurisdictions but finding no clear impact in others.

“If you’d asked me that question four to five years ago, I would have said, ‘Oh yeah, body-worn cameras reduce (use of force),” said Janne Gaub, a professor in the criminology department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has researched body cameras. “But what we’ve seen in the last few years is more kind of mixed results.”

Gaub and other researchers have suggested several factors that might be behind that.

For one, though many body camera studies are randomized controlled trials — often called the “gold standard” in research — they can still have small sample sizes and other methodological limitations.

How an agency implements its body camera program could also matter. If a department lacks a clear policy requiring officers to turn their cameras on or doesn’t hold officers accountable for misconduct, the impact could be minimal.

Agencies also start from different places. Some researchers say there seem to have been clearer reductions in the use of force at police departments, like Rialto, that are beset by problems. There appears to be less of an impact at agencies that already have higher standards — including ones that had already made other reforms under federal oversight. In other words, some agencies have more room to improve than others.

“We would assume if a department has federal oversight, and part of that federal oversight was to deal with use of force, that when they also implemented body cameras, they probably wouldn’t have those steep declines,” Gaub said.

But more research is needed on why body cameras seem more effective in some settings and less so in others, according to experts.

“I don’t think there’s great evidence on what is going to make this effective,” said Aaron Chalfin, a criminologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “But there’s probably some common sense, right, that if officers aren’t using the cameras, they’re probably not gonna work. ... If the department has, like, no accountability for bad behavior, then putting a camera on an officer may not make a huge difference.”

Fewer complaints

The findings about civilian complaints are more consistent. Complaints about officers tend to fall due to body-camera adoption — a study released this year by the economist Morgan Williams Jr. and researchers at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, which analyzed the results of past research, suggests a roughly 17% reduction on average.

But researchers say there’s a significant caveat: We’re not sure why.

“Is it that people are not filing frivolous complaints?” Gaub said. “... That could be happening. It could be that officers are acting better. Or citizens are acting better. We don’t really know. It’s hard to get at that mechanism of why are these things happening.”

Police officers who support body cameras often cite them as protection against frivolous or false allegations by civilians.

But body-camera footage could also dissuade civilians from filing complaints even when they feel genuinely aggrieved at first, as Charlie Dennis, the chief of police in Hanover and a member of the state’s LEACT commission, described at one of the body’s meetings.

When a civilian comes in claiming that an officer was rude, for example, Dennis reviews the video. If it doesn’t show that, the video can help avoid a complaint altogether.

“What I really like about it is the opportunity to bring in the individual that’s making the complaint to have them sit down and watch that video,” Dennis said. “And many times, they’ll say, ‘That’s not the way I remembered it.’ ”

Video evidence may also improve internal complaint investigations, according to a recent study.

In a paper released this summer, a group of economists found that civilian complaints about Chicago police officers were more likely to be sustained after the department rolled out body cameras. That meant officers were disciplined for misconduct more often.

The authors chalked that up to “objective and less controvertible evidence for investigations, helping them clear the bar for identifying whether an officer has engaged in an infraction or not.”

The presence of body cameras also seemed to narrow racial disparities. Previously, complaints from Black and Hispanic individuals were more likely to be unsustained than those from white complainants.

“When the body-worn camera is available, what you see is that this disparity disappears,” said lead author Suat Çubukçu, a lecturer in American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Criminology. “So almost at the same rate now, the police are sanctioned regardless of the complainant’s race.”

Not a panacea, but ‘peace of mind’

The findings on force and complaints have led some policing scholars to be skeptical about body cameras as a tool for reform.

In a July 2020 Bloomberg op-ed, Texas A&M economist Jennifer Doleac argued that police departments should focus instead on identifying and disciplining officers who behave badly, using their existing complaint data.

“Body-worn camera programs are an expensive attempt to find a way to build trust between police officers and their communities,” she wrote. “Video footage alone can’t do that, however, if there are no consequences for the bad behavior it reveals.”

Others are more optimistic, saying the benefits tend to outweigh the costs.

“Among the set of police departments that have adopted (body-worn cameras), the data seem to suggest they can be helpful on average, although by themselves they are clearly not a panacea,” Williams and his co-authors wrote in their analysis of prior studies, which included a cost-benefit analysis that calculated a positive return from fewer complaints and, possibly, less use of force.

Gaub said municipalities considering body cameras should consider their specific situation and needs.

“Really take a look at your local context,” she said. “The departments that I talk to that elect not to use body cameras oftentimes are those that say, ‘Look. The main reason people get cameras is because we have a significant problem with use of force, you have a significant problem with citizen complaints, you have poor police-community relations. ... We don’t really have those. So if we don’t have issues with those, then we’re not going to spend the money on cameras.’ ”

Activists point out that whether or not body cameras actually reduce the use of force, their more important function may be to increase transparency and accountability — and give the public more confidence about what happened if and when a particular incident comes under scrutiny.

Ronelle Tshiela, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Manchester who served on the police-accountability commission, said the Manchester officers she encountered during protests last summer would tell her their body cameras were on. That gave her more peace of mind.

More recently, she was pulled over in Portsmouth. Recalling that the city does not have body cameras, she said, she instantly felt less comfortable.

“If that interaction is not documented, then essentially it’s my word against theirs, and they’re in a position of authority, and nine times out of 10, that is going to take precedence over anything that I say,” she said. “So having that interaction recorded, having that interaction documented, is very important.”

No body-camera footage was available in at least 24 of the 30 fatal and non-fatal shootings by officers in New Hampshire since the start of 2014, according to a review of public statements and reports by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, which investigates such incidents. In a handful of those cases, dash cams in police cruisers, surveillance video or video shot by bystanders captured the incident.

One of the incidents without body-camera footage occurred in Claremont in 2016, when then-Corporal Ian Kibbe shot and killed Cody LaFont. The Attorney General’s Office found the shooting legally justified based on Kibbe’s account, which stated that LaFont had pointed a gun at him. No other witnesses saw the encounter.

However, after Kibbe pleaded guilty two years later to falsifying documents to justify an illegal search in an unrelated case, the Attorney General’s Office said it could no longer conclude the 2016 shooting was justified, citing Kibbe’s shaky credibility. At the same time, it said it could not disprove his claim of self-defense.

Joseph Lascaze, an organizer on criminal justice issues for the ACLU of New Hampshire and a member of the state police-accountability commission, said the presence of body cameras during an interaction with police could reassure the public that the officers will behave properly.

He has heard that from multiple community members and felt it himself. When officers announce they are wearing cameras, it signals that the interaction is going to “go the way that it’s supposed to go,” said Lascaze.

“It’s a peace of mind,” he said. ”It’s a peace of mind knowing that the body cameras are being employed.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit
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