Last year, police officers in Rialto, California, participated in an unprecedented experiment: Between February 2012 and February 2013, Rialto police wore cameras when they went out on patrol and responded to calls. The devices, made by Taser Inc., weighed less than four ounces and could be attached to sunglasses, shirt collars, and hats. They recorded for 12 hours, in color and HD, and the footage could be wirelessly transmitted to a central database.
The point of the experiment was to measure, for the very first time, the effect cameras had on "self-awareness and ultimately socially-desirable behavior" of Rialto police officers. The results were pleasantly shocking. When officers in the experimental group (i.e., those who wore the cameras) decided to use force, they used it only in response to subjects who were "clearly seen to be physically-abusive or to [be] physically resisting arrest"; whereas officers in the control group (i.e., those without cameras) "resorted to use [of] force without being physical-threatened" 30 percent of the time. Those findings mirrored who instigated the use of force: Officers wearing cameras never instigated violence, but officers without cameras did so slightly less than 30 percent of the time.
While the results of the Rialto experiment make the case for requiring police cameras in order to keep citizens safe, another finding suggests that wearable cameras may also in the best interests of the officers themselves: During the 12 months that the Police Foundation conducted its study, complaints against Rialto police declined 88 percent over the previous year.
And yet, some of the country's largest police unions oppose the cameras.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents NYPD rank-and-file, declared in August that its members wouldn't comply with a judicial order from Judge Shira Scheindlin requiring officers to wear body cameras on patrol. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed them up, calling the prospect of officers sporting cameras "a nightmare." In Las Vegas, the police union announced earlier this week that it had brokered a collective bargaining agreement with Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie: body cameras would be "optional" for officers who joined the Las Vegas Metro PD prior to 2013.
Much of that resistance might stem from why cameras are introduced into departments in the first place. In Seattle, Las Vegas, New York, and now San Francisco, wearable cameras have been proposed in response to federal investigations into police misconduct. They're introduced as a way to police the police, rather than as a way to help law enforcement officers protect themselves. As Rialto officers demonstrated, the presence of cameras actually improves police performance, and that improvement was reflected in a drastic reduction in complaints. It's easy to imagine how these cameras could help law enforcement agencies find and discipline bad apples in their own ranks, while protecting good officers from career-ruining lawsuits and disciplinary actions. (Taser, which makes the AXON FLEX camera, advertises it as "body armor for the courtroom.")
Exactly this sort of complex intersection of public safety, privacy, and technology are among the topics set to be discussed by mayors and law enforcement leaders at CityLab, The Atlantic's upcoming summit on city-level innovation. But considering that the NYPD spent $185 million settling lawsuits against its officers in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, perhaps it's time for police departments to start thinking more proactively. Wearable cameras—footage from which would be available to officers and through open records laws—could be a good first step.
Top image: Taser's Axon Flex camera attached to Oakley sunglasses.