Since the police shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014, police departments across America have invested millions to equip officers with body cameras in hopes of reducing use of force among cops as well as reducing civilian complaints.
But according to a new study of the Washington, D.C., police department made public Friday, body cameras are failing on both counts. The researchers found over the course of a seven-month study that officers wearing body cameras were no more or less likely to use force than those without body cameras.
Researchers in this new study gave 1,000 officers in the Metro D.C. Police Department body cameras, and let another thousand go about their work unfilmed. The results: Neither use of force dropped significantly among the officers wearing a body camera, nor did the rate of civilian complaint against officers vary significantly between the two groups.
“I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” D.C. police chief Peter Newsham told NPR. “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.”
Conducted by the Lab @ DC, a group of researchers in D.C.’s City Administrator’s office, the study is the largest, most comprehensive look at the effect of body-worn cameras in a large metropolitan police department today to date.
“These results suggest that we should recalibrate our expectations of [body-worn camera’s] ability to induce large-scale behavioral changes in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C.,” the researchers wrote in conclusion.
By 2015, 95 percent of large police departments were using body cameras, according to a Department of Homeland Security national survey.
And they’re expensive. The devices run up to $1,200 each, but it’s the storage that gets really pricey. Hours and hours worth of footage is captured by big police departments every day, much of which is discarded after three months, but about 40 percent of it is kept as evidence, for months or years, according to the New York Times.
Enthusiasm for the cameras led the Justice Department in 2015 to award $23 million to fund their use in local police departments across the country.
While the study results weren’t what the D.C. police department expected, D.C. cops will continue to use body cameras. And Newsham cautioned against interpreting the study as concluding that body cameras have no value at all.
“I think it’s really important, for legitimacy for the police department, when we say something to be able to back it up with a real-world view that others can see,” he said, according to NPR.
The rush to adopt the use of body cams after the events that took place in Ferguson came without much hard evidence that they were effective. The only significant study — conducted in 2012 in Rialto, California — found that body cams did make a big difference. Cops reduced their use of force by half when they were wearing a body camera, that study found.
But researchers urged caution in interpreting their results. It might just be that the D.C. police department, which has been under scrutiny since the late 1990s for its use of force, had already been trained to mitigate its use of force compared to other police departments nationally. They suggest, too, that officers not wearing body cams might have acted differently simply because they knew that other officers were wearing them.
Shares in Axon, the company formerly known as Taser and the largest provider of body cameras and service contracts in the U.S., dropped 7 percent in Friday trading on news its financial reports are under review by the U.S. Securities and Exchanges Commission.