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The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial

A Correction to this article was published on 17 September 2019

This article has been updated

Abstract

Objective

Police use-of-force continues to be a major source of international concern, inviting interest from academics and practitioners alike. Whether justified or unnecessary/excessive, the exercise of power by the police can potentially tarnish their relationship with the community. Police misconduct can translate into complaints against the police, which carry large economic and social costs. The question we try to answer is: do body-worn-cameras reduce the prevalence of use-of-force and/or citizens’ complaints against the police?

Methods

We empirically tested the use of body-worn-cameras by measuring the effect of videotaping police–public encounters on incidents of police use-of-force and complaints, in randomized-controlled settings. Over 12 months, we randomly-assigned officers to “experimental-shifts” during which they were equipped with body-worn HD cameras that recorded all contacts with the public and to “control-shifts” without the cameras (n = 988). We nominally defined use-of-force, both unnecessary/excessive and reasonable, as a non-desirable response in police–public encounters. We estimate the causal effect of the use of body-worn-videos on the two outcome variables using both between-group differences using a Poisson regression model as well as before-after estimates using interrupted time-series analyses.

Results

We found that the likelihood of force being used in control conditions were roughly twice those in experimental conditions. Similarly, a pre/post analysis of use-of-force and complaints data also support this result: the number of complaints filed against officers dropped from 0.7 complaints per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts. We discuss the findings in terms of theory, research methods, policy and future avenues of research on body-worn-videos.

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Change history

  • 17 September 2019

    We provide the corrected results table below. Note that this correction does not alter the findings from the analysis, nor the interpretation of results.

Notes

  1. Notably, many agencies are moving away from a use of force continuum, making the force determination even more ambiguous.

  2. For a more systematic account of rates and prevalence, see Adams (1996:85–91), see also Hickman et al. (2009) who estimate, based on three dozen recent publications, that police use or threaten to use force in 1.7 % of all contacts and in 20.0 % of all arrests; but cf. Garner et al (2002) who found that prevalence can increase to more than 58 % of police–public encounters.

  3. Though not without reservations about the utilization of complaint data as a single outcome measure, as complaints produce low substantiation rates—frequently 10 % or less (Liederbach et al. 2008).

  4. It is worth noting recent research that suggests that both internal and external controls are conditionally relevant and depend, in part, on the extent to which individuals deliberate (see Wikström et al. 2012).

  5. Similarly, officers regularly encounter ‘the usual suspects’ on patrol, meaning that there is some dependence between shifts in terms of “interactees”. Other research (e.g. Wikström et al. 2012) would suggest that even with variations in ‘actors’, there may be stable environmental cues that are conducive to specific actions, but the use of force by police still depends on the interaction between individuals and their settings (the situation).

  6. We acknowledge that prior knowledge of shift assignment might give rise to expectation effects—so that we would not know whether changes in behavior arise directly because of the presence of a camera, or anticipation of wearing a camera.

  7. As noted by Adams (1996:65), “although there are many attractive reasons for using official records in research on [use of] force, the strategy is not without limitations…some concerns are based on practical issues of how the data are collected…the quality of data (e.g., accuracy, dependability, and coverage)…can influence counts dramatically…more significant problem is that of missing data or information that should be available in record-keeping systems but is not.”

  8. Poisson is appropriate here because each event has a small probability in each shift, and there are many shifts.

  9. Note that we have reverse coded the treatment conditions so that 1 = control and 0 = treatment, meaning that ratios reflect the incident rate of the outcome occurring for the control condition versus the incident rate of the outcome occurring in the treatment condition.

  10. Results not shown in tabular form, but given here: {B = −0.713; [95 % CI −3.112 to 1.685]; p .560}.

  11. As Aristotle observed: “We are what we repeatedly do”.

  12. One benefit which we have overlooked but should be closely observed in the future is the “training potential” of body-worn-videos. Rialto officers downloaded their own footage in order to view their interactions on a routine basis. Much like surgery, football or acting, the footage recorded by police body-worn-videos can be used to “coach” police officers, about how they conduct themselves. We envisage future police training to incorporate one-on-one sessions in which junior officers train with their own footage, about police conduct and potentially improve their demeanor when dealing with suspects, victims and witnesses. The benefits associated with such an impactful evidence-based approach to training through digital coaching, for procedural justice, distributive justice and police conduct more generally, should be an area of future investigations.

  13. If we assume that all members of public encountered by the police are ‘criminals’ then it might well be justifiable, but this is obviously untrue.

  14. We argue that experiments that allow treatment-providers full discretion about when to give or not to deliver the treatment(s)—and with what dosage levels—are generally poor designs. If the study results in non-significant outcomes, then it would be very difficult to interpret the findings—are they due to fidelity failure or that the treatment ‘actually’ do not work in the hypothesized direction? Moreover, even if the study results in significant results, the magnitude of the treatment compared to control conditions would be either inflated or deflated and therefore misleading, depending on how the treatment-providers decided to contaminate the treatment delivery. These scenarios may have adverse impacts for any attempt of conducting reliable cost-benefit analyses, or at the very least force researchers to dabble in conversions, transformations and statistical corrections which may or may not work—but anyway take away from the ‘cleanliness’ of controlled experimental design. We are cognizant that in real-life, non-experimental settings police officers may end up owning the power of discretion when to use or not use body-worn-videos, yet at this stage of our knowledge on the potential effect of these novel devices, experimentalists should encourage the use of strict protocols with as little discretionary powers as possible, before making policy recommendations.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to alphabetically thank Badi Hasisi, Daniel Nagin, David Weisburd, Joel Garner, Justice Tankebe, Lawrence Sherman, Neil Wain, Phillip Dawid and the anonymous reviewers of earlier drafts of this manuscript for their tremendously helpful comments. Funding for this research was granted by Rialto Police and the Jerry Lee Centre of Experimental Criminology.

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Correspondence to Barak Ariel.

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Ariel, B., Farrar, W.A. & Sutherland, A. The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Quant Criminol 31, 509–535 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3

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Keywords

  • Technology
  • Deterrence theory
  • Use-of-force
  • Police
  • Randomized controlled field trial
  • Body-worn-cameras