As controversial police activity continues to make headlines, some civil rights advocates are promoting officer body cameras as a solution. They hypothesize that police will be more careful with use of force if they know their actions are being recorded.
But data released recently by the San Diego Police Department may cast doubt on whether body cameras are a “silver bullet” to curb excessive use of force by law enforcement. SDPD has been using body cameras on about a third of its officers for a year.
Interdepartmental research shows that during that 12-month period when body cameras were in use, instances of some types of force by San Diego police officers actually rose by 10%.
As the chart indicates, the bulk of that increase came in the “lesser controlling force” category, which include police actions such as using body weight to control a situation or other similar employments of physical strength by officers.
Instances of “greater controlling or defending force” decreased 8%. This category includes actions such as:
- use of Tasers
- use of pepper spray
In addition, there was an overall drop of 23% in citizen complaints against police during the 12 months the body cameras were being used.
San Diego Police chief Shelley Zimmerman admitted she was surprised by the results, telling the San Diego Union-Tribune:
“This first year of data all seems to suggest that (body cameras) aren’t the end-all solution to all social issues. We are going to need to enhance other current strategies that are effective, such as our psychiatric emergency response teams … our homeless outreach team … and our crisis-response team officers.”
Experts caution not to jump to any conclusions based on this study, because:
- The time period of one year is pretty limited.
- The majority of San Diego's police officers has not been using the body cameras.
- Instances of force were actually decreasing after six months, so the one-year spike could be an anomaly.
- Assaults against police officers surged 36% during the 12-month timeframe of the study. (Mental health calls and aggravated assaults against civilians also rose.)
- Chief Zimmerman speculated that police may be reporting more uses of force now that body cameras are recording their every move.
- A previous study of police in Rialto, California showed a 60% plunge in incidents of force after body cameras were employed.
Some justice advocates are urging police to view body cameras as a tool, not a solution. Alex Vitale, associate sociology professor of sociology at Brooklyn College, tells Mic:
“The use of cameras is intended as a form of procedural justice in which police are encouraged to perform their duties in a more lawful and respectful manner. While this has some obvious benefits, it doesn't deal with important, substantive justice issues, such as very high arrest rates for minor crimes, criminalization of homeless and mentally ill people and more intensive policing in communities of color.”
Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department announced a $20 million funding initiative to provide body cameras to law enforcement agencies around the country.