A new study out of Washington D.C. has concluded that body cameras do not have a significant effect on police use of force, or on the amount of citizen complaints. "We found essentially that we could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras," says Anita Ravishankar, a researcher with the Metropolitan Police Department and the group in the city government responsible for the study, the Lab @ DC. D.C. boasts one of the largest police forces in the country, and 2,600 of its officers wear body cameras, per NPR.
The study ran from June 2015 to December 2016 and worked with local police officials to ensure that cameras were assigned randomly. The results are somewhat shocking, as a recent number of highly publicized police shootings of innocent people have increased the public’s interest in the accountability of police officers. Body cameras were thought by many to be a way to hold officers accountable for their actions.
"I think we're surprised by the result," D.C. Chief of Police Peter Newsham said. "I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior. There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all."
Although the team at Lab @ DC found that the body cameras had virtually no effect on police behavior, that does not mean that a direct line can be drawn between the effects of all body cameras and all police forces. The D.C. police force is a particularly well-trained force.
"They're hiring the right people; they've got good training; they've got good supervision; they've got good accountability mechanisms in place," said Michael White, a researcher at Arizona State University who has participated in other body camera research programs. "When you have a department in that kind of state, I don't think you're going to see large reductions in use of force and complaints, because you don't need to. There is no large number of excessive uses of force that need to be eliminated."
Other groups are using the results of this one study to question the need of body cameras altogether. Harlan Yu, a representative for Upturn, an organization that studies how technology affects civil rights and social justice issues, questioned the use of cameras at all, pointing out that some departments "allow officers to review footage before writing their initial reports of violent incidents," according to NPR.
With all that said, there haven’t been enough studies on the effects of body cameras yet, so there's not a lot of hard evidence as to how they affect police behavior. "We need science, rather than our speculations about it, to try to answer and understand what impacts the cameras are having," said David Yokum, director of the Lab @ DC.