Body-Worn Cameras: Not Seeing the Forest for the Technology?

By: Valarie Findlay

For many Canadian law enforcement organizations, getting their feet wet with the technology through pilot programs couldn’t have happened fast enough. With several high-profile incidents regarding officers’ use of force setting off public outcry and civil rights concerns in recent years, it may be a step in the right direction.

However, several organizations have been pulling back after their pilots, mostly due to cost, but some organizations have expressed uncertainty about how much body-worn cameras help with officer interactions with the public — and whether it will improve the behaviours of either in all situations.

Recently Ottawa Police Services announced they will be launching a body-worn camera pilot project to put the purported merits of the individually worn devices to the test. Although the department announced they will roll out the project in 2017 to increase transparency and accountability, it is rumoured it may be a bit longer than that before the pilot comes to fruition.

But are Canadian law enforcement organizations — and the public — ready for the challenges that come with the technology? Are their expectations realistic? Looking back at early body-worn camera programs, such as the pilot with Devon and Cornwall Police (UK), the operational focus was on improving evidentiary elements and preserving victim first-disclosure evidence. Now, current trends for use fall to transparency and posterity with the aim to reduce public complaints, inappropriate behaviours by law enforcement and the public, and as a possible diffusion, tool to reduce the use of force. Once these hurdles have been addressed, it is assumed that future use would target the enhancement of intelligence, improvement of training, and refinement of judicial processes.

In the U.S., the demand for body-worn cameras and rapid adoption have ramped up as a result of increased racial conflicts and race-related shootings in interactions with police. In in the U.S. in 2013, about 95 per cent of the 17,500 state and local law enforcement agencies were either committed to body cameras or had completed their implementation, although 75 per cent of those were not at full implementation and 5 per cent had decided not to implement them at all.

Making this rate of adoption possible was substantial federal support with President Obama committing $23 million in funding to body-worn camera programs for law enforcement in 2012 and another $75 million in 2014, part of a broader three-year, $263 million initiative aiming to strengthen community policing.

Many of these pilots have produced anecdotal data indicating high success rates, but what does the research say? Generally, the case for adopting body-worn camera technology in law enforcement almost always points to three landmark studies — Rialto, Mesa and Phoenix — and now a recent study out of Cambridge in the UK that was modelled on Rialto and authored by the same academic who led Rialto’s study. Lauded as massive successes with substantial reductions in complaints and use of force, all four of these studies have revealed areas of concern in the post-analysis of their raw data — some presenting more questions than answers.

Compounding this is that all of these studies differ in methodology, control criteria and organization characteristics, community size and community relations, making comparative assessments difficult. And so far, none have broached the sociological and behavioural aspects: do body-worn cameras modify behaviours, is it the behaviour of the officer or member of the public (or if they are synchronous or symbiotic) that improves, and what are the subjective conditions that apply? This is not to suggest that the existing research is unimportant or that body-worn cameras are ineffective but serves to reiterate that body-worn camera research shows only a preliminary correlation — not actual causality — between use and outcomes.

Rialto Police Department’s year-long pilot and study in 2013 suggested that body-worn cameras did improve complaints and interactions, but further examination of the data also suggested that the effect of being observed during the experimental shifts may have encouraged preemptive moderating and the ‘spill-over’ effect, such as when officers downloaded and viewed their own body-worn camera footage. Officers who wore cameras only half of the time may also have been susceptible to a similar psychological awareness effect that influenced and improved future interactions. Closer examination of the raw data showed that the 59 per cent reduction in the use of force in all treatment shifts and 87 per cent reduction in public complaints were formulated from a small number of incidents — only twenty-five — and that the reductions in complaints were seen across both camera and non-camera groups.

The Mesa Police Department pilot in 2012 revealed a reduction of 48 per cent in “citizen complaints against camera officers for misconduct” during the study period and a 75 per cent reduction in the use of force complaints, noting that many complaints were resolved quickly due to the accessibility of video evidence. But the Mesa project also revealed concerns over discretionary activation policies, the unintended bias of volunteer and mandated officers, supervisory and punishment implications, and lack of design controls to address avoidance factors. Overall, the body-worn cameras did appear to be effective when worn in situations where there were verbal warnings of body-worn camera use, however, it was unclear why and in what instances — bias management was suggested to influence some of these favourable results. The concluding recommendations were that more controlled, replicable research was required.

More recently in 2016, the same author of the Rialto study, Barak Ariel, conducted the largest body-worn camera study on seven law enforcement organizations. Preliminary findings suggested that the overall effect on police use of force was “a wash”: in some instances, body-worn cameras reduced the use of force but in others, they didn’t and may have exacerbated behaviours and increased use of force — results were inconsistent and perplexing. However, in the final report, complaints by the public were reduced substantially — in one case to zero.

Again, some of the above factors were raised as caveats to the findings. The importance of this is that relying on outcomes that are more correlative that causal, or more of a placebo in their factors, can set expectations artificially high and suggest a cost-benefit that may not exist at the moment. It is clear the effectiveness of body-worn cameras will depend on the organization, its stated uses and goals, measurements and success criteria, and the rigorous execution of the pilot and/or adoption of the program.

In short, the value of body-worn camera technology as a tool for law enforcement organizations must be derived from cost-benefit and return on investment. In the case of the Vancouver Police Department, the benefit could not be justified; they shelved their 600 unit body-worn camera program due to the $17 million price tag for equipment, data storage and video recovery. It may be that waiting for the technology to “mature” is not the answer, and looking beyond current technologies may be the game-changer. For example, the Calgary Police Services addressed their data storage cost issue by using an older technology — storage tapes — that reduced costs to about $1 million.

Likewise, creative use of the video and upload technology quickly met the needs of civil rights groups and the public for police oversight with apps, such as “Hands Up for Justice.” These are free, available online, and allow for recording and immediate uploading to YouTube or a Dropbox account.

As far as the acceptance of the technology by the public and by officers, most research shows high support, but concerns over privacy exist for both, and some officers and unions express concern over operational and practical impediments. Some have suggested, “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”: if patrol is equipped with body-cameras during their shifts, so should the executives (doubtful the Chiefs will be lining up for that!).

In the end, regardless of whether it’s the U.S. or Canada, marrying the operational needs of law enforcement with the capabilities of body-worn camera technology, as well as interoperability and scalability with emerging technologies, like biometrics, voice recognition, telemetry and intelligence databases, may reveal a much more robust and effective tool than originally anticipated.

At the moment, Canadian law enforcement organizations are in a prime position to take a collaborative stance, glean from lessons learned in the U.S. and UK, and lead innovation with their vendors. While affordability, adaptability and policy may be current barriers to adopting body-worn camera technology, the cost of complacency may be higher, should the tail be left to wag the dog.

Valarie Findlay is a research fellow for the Police Foundation (USA) and has two decades of senior expertise in cyber security and policing initiatives. She holds a Masters in Terrorism Studies from the University of St. Andrews, and her dissertation, “The Impact of Terrorism on the Transformation of Law Enforcement” examined the transformation of law enforcement in Western Nations. Currently, Ms. Findlay is preparing her doctoral thesis on terrorism as a social phenomenon examined within the Civilising Process Theory (Elias). Ms. Findlay writes frequently for various security industry and law enforcement magazines on the organizational aspects of law enforcement and their impact on society, and on strategic initiatives in cyber security and domestic policy and national security.

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