Some Surprising News About Body-Worn Cameras

In 1948, British writer George Orwell envisioned a future in which “Big Brother,” the all-seeing eyes of totalitarian authority, would be watching every move of every citizen. In some ways, it has come to be; we live in a world of omni-surveillance, where our physical movements, at least in public, and many of our private transactions as well, are recorded, for good or for ill.

The cameras that are now trained on almost every bank and business, government office and urban scene, are tolerated because they are there for the protection of the citizenry. But recently, the invention of body-worn cameras (BWCs) turns the surveillance paradigm on its head. The camera is being turned on the police; they are the ones being watched.

The use of BWCs has been greatly accelerated by a crisis of decreased confidence in the police in many areas, precipitated by a series of highly contentious and highly publicized cases of alleged police brutality, particularly against African-Americans. The hope that technology would largely solve this deep-rooted, vexing social problem has been undergoing testing in the field.

A few days ago, in the largest test to date, the Washington, D.C., police department reported the surprising results: The use of body-worn cameras made no discernible difference in the behavior of policemen in the course of carrying out their duties!

The data appear to defy the well-established psychological principle that people behave differently (i.e., better) when they are being watched than when they are not. If any proof were needed (the first Rema in Shulchan Aruch should suffice), it exists.

The psychological factor is so powerful that the mere suggestion that someone is watching, or could be watching, has an effect. Thus, improved street lighting, which merely increases the visibility of the skulking thug in deserted streets, has a positive effect in high-crime areas.

In 2011, researchers at Newcastle University in England took the idea a step further, posting pictures of a pair of male eyes and the caption, “Cycle Thieves: We Are Watching You.” Bike thefts reportedly decreased by 62 percent in those locations — and not elsewhere.

In addition, a previous study of BWCs, in Rialto, California, found that their use led to a less frequent exercise of force by police and fewer complaints against them. Much the same was expected in the Washington study, and all are flummoxed by the outcome. To compound the perplexity, the Washington study was a much bigger, more statistically significant sample; in Rialto, just 54 officers participated in the test, compared with over 2,000 in Washington, with five times as many hours of video.

As of now, there is no sure explanation, only hypotheses. One is that another psychological factor had not been taken into consideration: that a person may quickly forget that he is wearing special equipment, and in the course of a day’s work, as an officer routinely switches the BWC on and off (since they’re intended strictly for encounters with the public), he comes to think of it as part of the uniform, along with the hat and badge. As such, it may indeed have little or no effect on his behavior.

In the case of the Washington police, there is another possible explanation, specific to that city. In 1998, the department was the subject of a devastating newspaper exposé. It was shown that the city’s police department had shot and killed more people per capita in that decade than any other police force in a large American city.

As a result, the police entered an agreement with the Department of Justice to reform its methods. As D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said, “We went through a transformation with regard to use of force when Justice came in here.” That could explain why cameras made no difference. The police force of Washington, D.C., may already have reformed itself by the time the study was done in 2017.

Nonetheless, Newsham himself expressed surprise at the results. He has suggested that the assumptions — even his own assumptions — about the prevalence of police misconduct were wrong. Maybe their behavior is better than people thought. Perhaps D.C. police “were doing the right thing in the first place,” he said.

But course, that’s a very big “perhaps,” and no one is ready at this point to treat the research data as conclusive. The only certain conclusion from the D.C. study is that more studies are needed.

In the meantime, critics of the police are forced to take a step back. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have advocated the use of body cameras. But the study, says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell at the A.C.L.U. of D.C., “should give us pause.”

There is one further point to be made about the experiment with BWCs: Police departments around the country have been remarkably willing to try out the technology. According to a 2015 survey, 95 percent of police departments reported that they had implemented or planned to implement police-worn body cameras. One might have expected many indignant refusals, but that hasn’t been the case.

That very willingness suggests that, despite the widespread allegations of police brutality, the police themselves believe they have nothing to hide. They may not be perfect, there are certainly some rotten apples, but the vast majority, they say, are hard-working individuals who bring honor to the force they belong to.

In any case, the indications are that while technology may help, the problems of law enforcement in America will take a great deal more than getting every police officer to wear a camera.