Body Cameras Are Doing What They Were Meant to Do

The number of complaints against police since the large scale adoption of body cameras by law enforcers has obviously plummeted, right? And the officers caught doing unlawful things by their body cameras have lead to a lot of corrupt officers being arrested and tried, right? As it turns out, not so much:

But what happens when the cameras are on the chests of police officers? The results of the largest, most rigorous study of police body cameras in the United States came out Friday morning, and they are surprising both police officers and researchers.

For seven months, just over a thousand Washington, D.C., police officers were randomly assigned cameras — and another thousand were not. Researchers tracked use-of-force incidents, civilian complaints, charging decisions and other outcomes to see if the cameras changed behavior. But on every metric, the effects were too small to be statistically significant. Officers with cameras used force and faced civilian complaints at about the same rates as officers without cameras.

While this study is interesting I think it’s a bit unfair to judge body cameras by criteria they were never designed to address. Were body cameras meant to address police abuses the officers wouldn’t have control over when they record and the video wouldn’t be uploaded to servers controlled by the departments. Instead the cameras would be record constantly and the video would be streamed and saved to a server controlled by an independent third-party charged with holding officers accountable.

The reason law enforcement agencies have been willing (and often enthusiastically willing) to adopt body cameras is because they recognized that such devices would prove useful for collecting evidence. If an officer wants to collect evidence, they just need to press the record button and video will be uploaded to a service like that their department has full control over. If the video is evidence of a crime, it is saved so it can be used in court. If the video records something that might embarrass the officer or the department, it can be tossed down a memory hole.