A research group at the University of Cambridge has found that providing police officers with body-worn reduces complaints against the police.

What would you do if the people supposed to be protecting you started to become a threat? For black people living in America this is a reality as the number of African Americans killed by the police continues to rise. Police misconduct in America has been hitting the headlines frequently this year and the call for change, led by the Black Lives Matter campaign is widespread. Researchers at the University of Cambridge may now have an answer to their cries and its beautifully simple – providing police with cameras.

The study was carried out in both the UK and the US and found that the use of body-worn cameras stopped almost all complaints against the police. Every week police officers participating in the study were randomly assigned to either wear a camera (treatment) or not (control) so all officers in the study were used in both conditions. At the beginning of the study a total of 1,539 complaints were made against the 6 police departments involved in the study, by the end of the study complaints had dropped to 113 for all sites – a huge 93% reduction. There are several theories as to what caused the drop in complaints: first wearing cameras means that officers are more accountable for their actions so less likely to use excessive force. Secondly members of the public are less likely to make false complaints about officers when they know that the encounter has been recorded. Additionally any complaints that are made are more easily resolved when there is evidence, saving governments time and money.

One of the most interesting points about the study was that they found no difference between the control and treatment groups. Under standard experimental conditions this would be bad news but in this case it’s a great sign. It means that officers not wearing a camera were also getting fewer complaints suggesting that a behavioural change had occurred throughout the police force resulting in all shifts being carried out with improved conduct. This is great news for rolling out the initiative on a wider scale as police departments could benefit from the effects of wearing cameras at half the cost as only half the officers would need to be randomly allocated cameras on a day-to-day basis.

Though body-worn cameras keep the public safe from officers using excessive force, it could put officers themselves at risk. Partway through the study it was found that wearing cameras increased assaults against the police, potentially because officers were less assertive when they were being filmed and in certain situations more force is required. Also huge amounts of data will be recorded about each officer as they conduct their shift, including any private conversations between themselves and colleagues. These personal conversations could be used against said officer if the data is widely accessible, a reasonable solution to this issue is to only allow recordings to be accessed if a complaint is made and not for any other purpose.

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Kate Dearling

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