August 15, 20q13

nypdcam2One of the directives ordered by Judge Scheindlin in her decision declaring New York City’s stop and frisk program unconstitutional was to equip NYPD officers with body cameras. Mayor Bloomberg treated this suggestion derisively during his post-decision press conference apoplexy, as he sarcastically channeled the “common man’s” complaints about cop-operated cameras.

A camera on the lapel or hat of a police officer… He didn’t turn the right way. My god, he DELIBERATELY did it. It’s a solution that’s not a solution…

For a guy who really seems to love aiming cameras at civilians, Bloomberg sure isn’t much for aiming any at his “personal army.” I’m sure it galls him that his NYPD (and that’s how he thinks of it — his) might have to be subjected to extra scrutiny and accountability, like some sort of common police force in Podunksville, USA (read: anywhere other than NYC).

The thing is, the evidence (what exists of it) shows body cameras are a net gain, both for cops and civilians. As Hephaestus pointed out in his comment on another cops-and-cameras story, Rialto’s (CA) police department saw significant improvements in a couple of problem areas as a result of department-issued body cams.

When cops in a Rialto, California were forced to wear cameras, their use of force dropped by over two-thirds. Additionally, the officers who were not made to wear the cameras used force twice as much as those who did. This strongly suggests the majority of the time police use force is unnecessary. In other words, the majority of the time these officers used force they were simply committing acts of violence which they don’t feel comfortable committing if it’s captured on film…

The Rialto study began in February 2012 and will run until this July. The results from the first 12 months are striking. Even with only half of the 54 uniformed patrol officers wearing cameras at any given time, the department over all had an 88 percent decline in the number of complaints filed against officers, compared with the 12 months before the study, to 3 from 24.

A better behaved police force is a more effective police force, one that’s not bogged down in departmental paperwork, internal investigations and court battles that the deployment of excessive force tends to bring with it.

Out in Florida, police departments are seeing similar results.

Officer Rininger says one of the goals of using these [cameras] is to hold cops more accountable, and keep them from crossing the line.

“You have the video actually from the time of the incident and not just the officer’s hearsay,” says Officer Rininger. “Officers who are equipped with cameras, their use of forces are lower.”

The statistics back that up. According to a new study by Cambridge University, agencies who used these cameras cut their excessive force complaints in half over the course of a year.

But it’s not just cops being better behaved. Police officers using these cameras have discovered the citizens they interact with are also better behaved.

“They are great tools for not only recording what you would expect, but they also seem to have great impact in ensuring civility during police interactions,” said John DeCarlo, a University of New Haven associate professor of criminal justice and former Branford police chief.

Hamden Police Chief Thomas Wydra said law enforcement agencies using the technology across the country have seen improvement in the behavior of both parties, police and public.

“People behave more professionally, and they simply are more professional with each other,” Wydra said.

No cop wants to show up at a call and have to deal with nothing but assholes. Likewise for civilians. With a camera recording everything being said, the dialog tends to be lower key. Every encounter has a chance to be part of someone’s (cop or member of the public) permanent record, so to speak. Being an asshole may not be a crime, but it’s seldom helpful when one party insists on being antagonistic.

The presence of a body camera also levels the playing field somewhat, especially for cops who still are uncomfortable with citizens recording their actions. With every citizen carrying a cell phone, a cop’s body camera puts a second set of “eyes” on the situation.

[I]n a world where 90 percent of adults have a recording device in their pocket — a cellphone or smartphone — perceptions are changing.

Some New Haven officers have purchased body cameras on their own, Esserman said. It’s a stark contrast from a time when many officers were highly skeptical of dashboard cameras.

“Years ago it was imposed on officers; now it seems many officers think it’s in their best interest,” he said. “I think the world has changed and people are much more comfortable with cameras than they used to be.”

In Branford, Halloran said body cameras have been embraced by his officers.

“Now the attitude of the officers are, if there’s a camera broken down, ‘Well, I want a camera. I’m not going on the road without a camera,’” Halloran said.

Mesa, AZ’s police department has experienced a similar drop in uses of excessive force and citizen complaints.

The Mesa Police Department is currently in the eighth month of its own year-long trial program with body cameras. Sergeant Tony Landato said the cameras “really have been an assist.” He added that “obviously we have mixed emotions among some of our members, there are people who don’t want that 24-hour scrutiny. But overall it’s been a very positive thing.”

Taser International, the company that manufactures the eponymous stun gun, also makes body-worn cameras. Steve Tuttle, a Taser vice president, said the cameras can be a hard sell — until police officers discover the video can be used to back them up. And then, Tuttle mirrored Sergeant Landato’s experience. “Once they’ve had a complaint, and realize ‘Oh my gosh, there is a video of this,’ that changes their feelings very quickly.” Tuttle said the cameras reduced complaints against police by “a dramatic number.”

With all these positives comes the negative aspects. Obviously, there’s a privacy concern. Collected video can be considered a public record, but interactions with people inside their homes or places of business might still be subject to an expectation of privacy. There’s also a concern about stored footage of people who happen to be at the scene but are not involved with the criminal activity or interaction being recorded.

Sergeant Robert Drager is the technical manager of the body camera program in Albuquerque. He says once you’re crossed the logistical hurdles of the program — is the camera recording? is the battery going to last longer than an hour? — officers still have to deal with the massive amounts of data produced by the videos. An example: Drager says that in Albuquerque, in four months just 70 police officers have recorded 30,000 videos. And there’s more.

“Officers a lot of times are seeing people on the worst day of their lives, and we’re capturing that on video that’s now a public record,” he said. “We’re in the process of trying to create an entire unit to deal with all the media requests and public records requests.”

Another concern is that cop-controlled cameras will be abused in order to cover up wrongdoing. To that end, most camera systems have built-in safeguards to minimize any post-recording manipulation or gaps in coverage.

Rialto’s camera system attacks this problem by running a constant 30-second “pre-event” buffer. This way the event that prompts the officer to turn on the camera is more likely to be caught on tape. This won’t do much for officers who leave their cameras off, but its assumed that video reviews of the day’s events will expose any glaring gaps or omissions.

Branford, CT’s system auto-uploads all footage into cloud storage maintained by Amazon the moment the camera hits the charger. Bellvue, NE’s system prevents video editing on the camera itself and uses a proprietary cord to download the video from the camera.

None of these systems are completely immune to abuse, but as the systems become more common, improvements in these areas will follow.

Even with limited evidence, Bloomberg’s resistance to outfitting the NYPD with body cameras feels more like an authoritarian kneejerk reaction than one borne out of any serious thought. (Much like most of the press conference…) He and Ray Kelly’s love for CCTV is similarly wrongheaded. The full report on Rialto’s body camera experiment points out the limitations of surveillance cameras in terms of reducing certain kinds of criminal activity.

CCTV cameras were found to be weak behavior modifiers not because of a flaw in the self-awareness paradigm or the deterrence theory. Rather, the level of certainty of being apprehended necessary for the self-awareness mechanism, which would lead to socially-desirable behavior, is not high enough in CCTV. If cameras are expected to influence behavior and to serve as cues that social norms or legal rules must be followed, then the cue “dosage” of awareness must be intense. Mobile cameras are likely to have this effect.

Whoever ends up running the city will be faced with the possibility of outfitting the NYPD with body cameras. Let’s hope it’s someone who recognizes that the benefits to both the police department and the public will far outweigh any potential downsides. With Kelly possibly leaving his post as well, the new mayor may have an easier time implementing this should the NYPD’s appeal of the decision fail. New Yorkers should hope this is done sooner rather than later as this tactic, more than any other order issued by the judge, has the greatest possibility of improving the NYPD’s civil rights record.

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