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Opening Arguments

Playing nice for the camera

The most cited reason for the rise in poularity of body cameras for police is that they would create visual records so we don't have to guess what really happens during police-civilian encounters. A generally unarticulated corollary to that assumption is that the cameras will modify police behavior. Now there's a study seeming to show just that:

One study set out to explore the impact of body worn cameras, and its initial findings were that they do, in fact, decrease police use of force.

The Journal of Quantitative Criminology recently published the study, which detailed the first controlled and much-discussed experiment to ask whether body-worn cameras could reduce the prevalence of police use-of-force or the number of complaints filed against police.

Conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology, the study, based on a 12-month trial in Rialto, California, found that body-worn cameras reduced the use of force by roughly 50 percent, says Dr. Barak Ariel, the lead author. Complaints against police also fell 90 percent during the study period compared with the previous year.

“This is a promising tool for police officers, which is likely to be a game changer not only for the professionalization of policing, but in terms of police-public relations,” says Ariel, an assistant professor at the Institute of Criminology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lecturer in Experimental Criminology at the University of Cambridge in England.

Boy, I don't know. Fifty percent seems awfully high to me. Does that indicate how much unnecessary force police are using? Or do the cameras sometimes influence them to use less force than they sometimes should, putting themselves and even the public at risk? One of those unknowable things, I guess. I've always suspected that the police use of non-lethal weapons, like pepper spray and stun guns, increase the likelihood of force. If police know they're less likely to kill someone, they might be more inclinded to use non-lethal force in cases where they might otherwise try talk. But we can't know that for certain, either.