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Policing the Police
Body Cameras Not a Cop Cure-All

Here’s a sobering statistic for those who argue that body-worn cameras (BWCs) will increase police accountability: In a pilot program of the cameras in Detroit, only 26 percent of incidents in which police used force were captured on the cameras. Ars Technica covers an “independent police monitor’s report” on six months of body camera use in the city. One reason for such a low capture rate is that supervisors and off-duty cops didn’t always wear the cameras, but even for those who did the results were poor. Only 47 percent of incidents involving camera-wearing cops were recorded, for various reasons:

The most common being that the encounters progressed or deteriorated too quickly for them to safely activate the BWC, as was reported in 11 of the 45 incidents. The second most common reason identified for lack of recording was user and/or equipment error, as was reported in five of the 45 incidents where the officers did not charge their units, could not download footage, or wore BWCs in a way that obscured the audio and/or video. In five of the 45 incidents, it is unknown if the BWC was used because the supervisor did not make any mention of it in the supervisor cover report; in one incident, the supervisor did mention that the BWC wasn’t activated but didn’t say why.

Some of these problems are in principle fixable. You could require supervisors to wear them, or give police better training in how to use them. You can create cameras that police could turn on faster. But swiftly escalating conflicts and bad footage can be unavoidable, and moves toward transparency don’t always mean government employees will be held responsible for bad behavior.

It’s worth noting, though, that studies of cameras elsewhere produced more promising results. In Rialto, CA, police use of force fell by 60 percent and public complaints by 88 percent after cameras were introduced. And Detroit is pushing ahead with a second pilot program, indicating that the leaders there believe in body cameras. Interestingly, articles about this second program make no mention of the above report, so it’s not clear whether it has had an impact. But unless the rate at which the cameras pick up incidents dramatically improves, cameras are not likely to be a very good solution in Detroit.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Surely it’s obvious why only 47 percent of incidents involving camera-wearing cops were recorded! If camera’s are to be effective, failure to use them should result in disciplinary action.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Police departments and their governments are mainly interested in three things with respect to cameras:
    1) They want to document bad guys being bad
    2) They want to minimize or defend lawsuits
    3) They want the public to shut up and find something else to gripe about

    Citizens need to be reminding their departments of these benefits AND pushing on toward the Rialto result.

  • DiogenesDespairs

    Does something obviously useful in dealing with a widespread problem have to be perfect? A 47% rate is a heck of a lot better than a 0% rate. The way you play this otherwise useful story is disappointing coming from The American Interest.

  • Fred

    It will be interesting to see what happens to the crime rates in Rialto and Detroit over time. If I were a betting man, I’d lay odds on a rise.

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