On Friday, scientists released the results of one of the largest-ever studies on the use of police body cameras to date. And while outfitting law enforcement with recording devices has long been held as one of the keystones of police reform, data from this latest investigation suggest that body camera may not have much of an impact on how cops actually behave.
The study was conducted by the The Lab @ D.C.—a science-based initiative housed in the D.C. city government—in partnership with the the D.C. Metropolitan Police. According to the study’s authors:
Individual officers were randomly assigned—imagine flipping a coin—to either wear a body camera (treatment) or not (control). We then compared these two groups. With over 2,200 officers involved, this is one of the largest and most rigorous studies on this issue to date.
The researchers then measured a variety of outcomes over the seven months the officers did—or didn’t—wear the body camera. In particular, the study focused on an officer’s use of force, and any civilian complaints about the officers.
What they found, however, was that “body-worn cameras had no statistically significant effects on any of the measured outcomes,” save for a few extremely small fluctuations. There was nothing to suggest that wearing body cameras would lead to widespread behavioral changes among a police force like D.C.’s.
The study’s results seem to fly in the face of a previous experiment conducted in Rialto, California, which indicated a significant drop in civilian complaints against officers wearing body cameras. That study’s results have gone on to be cited by both judges ordering departments to use the equipment, and retailers marketing the cameras to police forces, the New York Times notes. However, as the Times points out, the Rialto experiment relied on just 54 officers—around 2% of the total data pool used in the D.C. research.
Which isn’t to say that the use of body cameras by law enforcement officers is a useless exercise.
While wearing body cameras may not affect police behavior on a large scale, the footage provided by those cameras has proven invaluable in specific instances—particularly those in which officers have been accused of wrongdoing. Without body cameras, for instance, we would never know about the multiple attempts at evidence manipulation by the Baltimore Police Department. We would never have seen Utah police officers drag a nurse screaming after refusing to draw blood from an unconscious patient. And we would not have reason to doubt the official story of why police officers shot and killed an unarmed 19-year-old in Fresno last year.
However, body cameras have also been shown to benefit the police—especially in instances where the officers themselves are in control of when the cameras are turned on.
What this recent study shows is that the public shouldn’t think of body cameras as a magical solution to the country’s law enforcement issues. Instead, body cameras are best seen as a a tool—part of a larger suite of resources—in the ongoing effort to hold police officers more accountable for their actions.