In July 2011, mentally ill and homeless Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by California police officers. Two years later, unarmed, Eric Garner passed away from being held in a chokehold by New York officers. On February 6th of last year, Alabama officers left Indian grandfather, Sureshbhal Patel, paralyzed after a severe beating. Police brutality and the lack of judicial consequences for culpable officers have taken centre stage in the United States. This social crisis is problematic for the government, which has been feverishly searching for a solution that simultaneously soothes the public’s panic and upholds good relations with police departments.
The most widely accepted remedy has been flooding departments across the country with the latest, and most lavish, body and car cameras with the intention of providing courts assistance in settling the he-said-she-said situations. Actively backing a powerful dependence on technology, the Obama administration laid plans last spring to allocate $20 million for the investment and hasn’t fallen short in delivery. From Detroit to Miami, officers across the country are being equipped with what is believed to be the magic answer to improving their crumbling relationship with residents.
Despite the body camera plan having the alluring appeal of a fresh approach, a significant amount of incidents are already caught on video, including the ones that took the lives of Thomas, Garner, and Patel. However, the court has not held the officers seen acting out on the footage responsible. So why does the government and public seem to unconditionally back up police and their cameras, despite the lack of hard evidence?
A study was conducted in Rialto, California on the impact of the technologies on the city’s 107-officer police force. The report concluded “an 88% decrease in the number of complaints against the department”, and the number of times officers used force was decreased by 36 incidents during the yearlong study.
The study, conducted by the University of Cambridge Institute for Criminology, has been cited in the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Guardian— portraying California as “a champion for police cameras” and “a game changer for the professionalization of policing”.
However, even the head researcher on the case, Dr. Barak Ariel, cautions widely applying the study to various cities across the country.
“The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t approve drugs until they’ve been studied extensively” he told the Atlantic, “and governments should take a similar approach with body-worn cameras”.
The word “extensively” is where things become blurred for the research of police camera procedures. The Rialto study was the first randomized-control analysis on the topic – joining to the unimpressive, five-count pool of reports. In addition to the lack of existing number of adequate studies, the Rialto study is hardly widely applicable across the US, due to its isolated and narrow-scope.
The town, whose weak claim to fame is having the first established Christian church and being home to Target’s 6th largest distribution centre, is hardly suitable as a research model for any major North-American city. With a population just under 100,000 and a crime rate hovering the national average, claiming this study can be reapplied to a city of Detroit’s stature, with a crime rate over three times the national average and a population of just under 700,000, would make even a first year statistics student wince.
The false hope radiating from the Rialto study indoctrinated a nation looking for comfort. The real evidence, however, seems to be on the other side of the table.
A fleet of New York Times journalist worked alongside Professor Stoughton from the University of South Carolina to prove just how deceiving body cameras can be.
Stoughton wore a camera and filmed several engagements with a volunteer, then the New York Times had readers vote on what they thought was occurring on the footage. Turns out, even the intellects that declared to read the research section of the NYT were fooled.
Throughout the series of staged scenes, participants demonstrated varying perceptions based on cognitive and unconscious biases while watching the videos, including their race and predisposition towards police respectively.
In response to a scene by Professor Stoughton posing as the police, 28% of people who claimed to generally trust the police saw a serious threat, compared to the 19% who stated to not generally trust police.
In addition to these biases, another issue body cameras broach is the favouring of the police officer’s viewpoint.
“When video allows us to look through someone’s eyes, we tend to adopt an interpretation that favours that person”, Stoughton told the NYT. In the Rialto study, the researchers boasted the decrease in complaints against the department. Nevertheless, this concept of “camera perspective bias” proposes an imperative concern. Rather than police behaviour improving, victims and local citizens wind up sensing that the videos expel justice from the situation, and, in turn, cause them to feel less inclined to prove their case.
Body cameras have the potential to be versatile and valuable resources to police and justice departments across the country. However, there still lacks forthright evidence to turn that potential into a kinetic force for sincere social justice in America. Before the government invests millions into the camera recording technology, and before the public gets its hopes up, further social research must be conducted in order to paint a more precise picture of its true impact on the quality of service and safety of certain police officers. Although many view body cameras as a solution, it is still simply a physical tool that is hindered by its own set of limitations and challenges.
– Erin Dwyer
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