AuthorBraga, Anthony A.


Recent deadly police officer-involved shooting events in Baltimore, Charlotte, Chicago, Ferguson, and elsewhere in the United States have exposed very concerning rifts in the relationships between the police and the communities they protect and serve. (1) Placing body-worn cameras (BWCs) on police officers has been suggested as one potentially powerful response to the current police legitimacy crisis in many U.S. cities. Advocates suggest there are many benefits associated with placing BWCs on police officers. (3) BWCs are suggested to increase transparency and citizen views of police legitimacy, improve police and citizen behaviors during encounters, enhance evidence collected for the resolution of complaints against the police and the arrest and prosecution of offenders, and provide improved opportunities for police training. (4) The Obama Administration proposed that Congress provide the U.S. Department of Justice with $75 million to fund the purchase of and technical assistance for BWCs. (5) In 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that over one-quarter of the approximately 18,000 U.S. police departments had adopted the BWC technology, and the number of police departments with BWC programs has undoubtedly increased since then. (6)

Like other police technologies, the rapid adoption of BWCs has occurred within a low-information environment. As Professor Cynthia Lum cautions, the rapid adoption of police technologies in the absence of rigorous empirical evidence about their impact can lead to unanticipated and unintended consequences that may harm both police and public interests. (7) Social scientists are only beginning to develop scientific knowledge about the effects, expected and unexpected, of the BWC technology. (8) For instance, the evidence on the effects of BWCs on the civility of police-citizen encounters is still somewhat unclear. Several studies find that BWCs reduce complaints against police officers and officer use of force reports, (9) while other studies find no statistically significant reductions in complaints against BWC officers (10) and a concerning increase in assaults on officers with BWCs. (11)

There is also growing evidence that suggests BWCs may result in increased enforcement activity by police officers. Controlled evaluations reveal that BWC officers make more arrests and citations relative to their non-BWC counterparts. (12) These unexpected outcomes could undermine improvements in police-citizen encounters associated with adoption of the technology in urban environments. To some observers, too many police departments engage in excessive surveillance and enforcement practices in urban neighborhoods. (13)

We examine the effects of BWCs on police activity and police-citizen encounters in Las Vegas, Nevada. A randomized controlled trial design involving more than 400 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) patrol officers tested the impacts of randomly-allocated BWCs on complaints, use of force reports, and officer activity outcomes for treatment officers relative to control officers. (14) Part 1 reviews the existing literature on the impact of BWCs on the civility of police-citizen encounters and police officer work activities. Parts II and III describe the Las Vegas randomized experiment and the statistical models used to analyze the outcome data. Part IV reveals that our experimental analyses found statistically significant reductions in complaints and officer use of force reports for treatment officers relative to control officers. However, we also find statistically significant increases in arrests and citations made by treatment officers relative to control officers. We discuss implications of these findings for BWC policy and practices in the conclusion.



      Two theoretical perspectives, deterrence and self-awareness, are commonly applied to support the position that placing BWCs on officers will improve the civility of police-citizen interactions by deterring undesirable behaviors (i.e., not wanting to be recorded on video doing something inappropriate or illegal) and stimulating desirable behaviors (i.e., remembering to treat others with respect). (15) Deterrence theory suggests that crimes can be prevented when the costs of committing the crime are perceived by the offender to outweigh the benefits. (16) Much of the literature evaluating deterrence focuses on the effect of changing certainty, swiftness, and severity of punishment associated with certain acts on the prevalence of those crimes. (17) The available research suggests that deterrent effects are ultimately determined by offender perceptions of sanction risk and certainty. (18)

      BWCs have been suggested as a deterrent to noncompliance with the rules of proper behavioral conduct in police-citizen encounters. (19) In his discussion of the influence of cameras on behavior, Professor Nick Tilley argued that deterrence is one prominent prevention mechanism triggered by the technology: the presence of a camera "reduces... [noncompliance] by deterring potential offenders who will not wish to risk apprehension and conviction by the evidence captured on videotape or observed by an operator on a screen on which their behavior is shown." (20) For officers and citizens alike, the presence of a camera during encounters increases the likelihood that any misconduct and illegal behaviors will be captured on video and, as such, generates a deterrent effect by increasing their perceptions of the likelihood of apprehension and celerity of punishment. (21)

      Self-awareness theory states that when we focus our attention on ourselves, we evaluate and compare our current behavior to our internal standards and values. (22) This theory further suggests that when human beings are under observation, they modify their behavior, exhibit more socially acceptable behavior, adhere to social norms, and cooperate more fully with the rules. (23) People are more likely to align their behavior with personal standards when made self-aware and believe that they will be negatively affected if they do not live up to these standards. (24) Various environmental cues and situations induce awareness of the self, such as mirrors, an audience, or being videotaped or recorded. (25) A well-developed line of research suggests that people do alter their behavior once they know that they are being observed. (26)

      The presence of BWCs during police-citizen encounters is suggested to stimulate self-awareness by making these individuals conscious that they are being watched and their actions are being recorded. (27) As a result, police and citizens alike become self-aware and compare their behavior in the encounters with objective standards, which are socially desirable behaviors. (28) If encounter participants notice a discrepancy between their behavior and what is socially desirable, then they will alter their behavior. (29) As will be discussed further below, these socially desirable behaviors include procedurally just treatment of citizens by police officers. (30) In summary, there is solid theoretical support for the use of BWCs as a prevention mechanism to influence the behaviors of those who are under observation. (31) BWCs are suggested to have both an intrinsic effect (self-awareness theory) and an extrinsic effect (deterrence theory) on those being watched such that police and citizens will exhibit socially desirable behavior in their interactions. (32)

      While it remains unclear whether deterrence, self-awareness, or both are generating the observed effects, several recently completed randomized controlled trials and quasi-experiments suggest that BWCs improve the civility of police-citizen civilian encounters by reducing complaints against officers and officer use of force (both excessive and non-excessive). In the Rialto, California randomized experiment, officers wearing BWCs during treatment shifts generated a 90% reduction in complaints and a 50% reduction in use of force reports relative to officers not wearing cameras during comparison shifts. (33) In Arizona, the Mesa Police Department's quasi-experimental evaluation of BWCs revealed a 40% reduction in citizen complaints against treatment officers for misconduct during the study period, and a 75% decline in use of force complaints. (34) In the Orlando, Florida randomized experiment, BWC officers had a significantly lower prevalence of response-to-resistance incidents (involving electronic control devices, chemical agents, impact weapons, and other non-lethal implements) and lower prevalence of serious external complaints relative to control officers without BWCs. (35) A quasi-experimental evaluation in Phoenix reported a 62% reduction in complaints lodged against treatment officers relative to control officers. (36) In the Mesa, Phoenix, and Rialto studies, many complaints were resolved quickly due to the accessibility of video evidence. (37)

      While there is some promising evidence that BWCs de-escalate confrontation and aggression in police-citizen encounters, not all evaluations support this position. A randomized experimental design was used to evaluate the effects of BWCs on complaints against officers in the London

      Metropolitan Police Service (United Kingdom). (38) The study did not reveal any statistically significant differences in overall complaints made against officers with BWCs relative to officers not wearing BWCs. (39) There were also no statistically significant differences in self-reported assaults on officers or injuries for BWC officers relative to control officers. (40) A multisite randomized experiment involving 2,122 officers in eight police departments reported no overall reduction in officer use of force and an increase in assaults on officers wearing BWCs during treatment shifts relative to officers not wearing BWCs during control shifts. (41) In a...

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