What will be the long-term effects of body cameras in the RPD? While much is still undetermined, there are some significant, tangible results of the cameras so far. In the final part of the RFR podcast on body cameras, we explore this issue.
Below is the transcript of the podcast:
Sean: You’re listening to the Radio Free Richmond podcast. This is the final part of a three part series about the Richmond Police Department’s new body cameras. In part one we explored the cameras themselves. In part two we looked at how they’re used and the policies regulating the cameras. Now we’re going to look at the longterm effects of this technology.
Rick Perez: It’s like, it’s left up to the cops to their discretion, whether they have to turn it on or off. I also wonder about how if the signal is transmitted to a third party, or if it’s going to be in control the police who obviously manipulate things in their favor. Or is it in the Chief of Police’s control and look at it and say “Oh, I don’t like what it shows, so the camera wasn’t on and that’s my word and I’m sticking to it.”
Sean: That’s Rick Perez — and he has reason to be skeptical of police practices. On September 14th of 2014 Rick’s son, Richard “Pedie” Perez, was shot and killed by an officer of the Richmond Police Department. Pedie was intoxicated outside of his local corner store, and, according to the RPD, Pedie dove for the officer’s gun when an officer tried to detain him. The officer shot him three times, and Pedie died shortly after. Pedie’s death was the first officer-involved fatality in Richmond since 2007.
Perez: I think cameras are a very great idea. I think they should be not in any way controlled by any police agency as in the District Attorney, Police Department, or anything. It should be by a 3rd party, and it should be accessible across the board, to anyone’s lawyer or as well as the police department, but it’s not in control by the police department, which it seems to be that they are now. They talk about community policing and community trust, and they’ve completely lost my trust. There are a lot of honorable cops out there, don’t get me wrong, but you get the few out there that abuse their authority and this is the result we get.
Sean: Perez has a point. Here’s the way the RPD body camera system works right now: Officers record data throughout their shifts. They upload their data to the cloud once they’re back at the station, and every 180 days there is a review of flagged videos to see if they should be kept for evidentiary purposes or scrapped. This approach reflects how the RPD views the cameras — not as a means to profoundly shift in the way they interact with the public, but, rather, as just tools of the trade. Officers record data for evidence or for protection against false claims of violence, and they get rid of the rest.
Back in the car with Officer Cortez, I asked her what she thinks the biggest impact will be. Her answer is immediate.
Cortez: Justifying use of force, and false complaints made against police officers. I think there are a lot of those.
Sean: It’s interesting because I feel like a lot of members of the public who are in support of body cameras will have kind of the same response, but from their point of view.
Cortez: Mmm. Yeah. Well, what do you mean by that?
Sean: Like, especially in response to all of the protests as of late, I think they’re really going to look to these cameras as a way to find out what happened. Were the police being overly aggressive in this instance? So, in the way that it would clear an office from a false accusation, they’re looking for it to prove guilt of being overly aggressive. It’s kind of two sides of the same coin.
Sean: But you don’t see it as a shift in the way you are policing?
Cortez: No. I don’t see why there would be any difference. I think that a lot of times the public doesn’t understand why we do what we do. And even so, if you tell them the reasons, they don’t believe you.
Sean: What do you mean?
Cortez: Like, for example, in any protest that we’ve had recently with the shootings — nobody was there. Nobody — I can almost guarantee you that the people who are protesting in California about what happened in Ferguson or what happened in other places were not there. All we know is what the media tells us. So, with that being said, the officer can say “This is what happened,” but who really knows? And then everybody gets upset about things that they didn’t even see.
Sean: But the accusations are there. Fall 2014 saw protests around the country shutdown city streets and highways with calls of “Hands up, Don’t shoot.” Richmond’s own police chief, Chris Magnus, held a sign that read #BlackLivesMatter and received national acclaim. There’s a reason that President Obama ordered funding for 50,000 police body cameras for police departments across the country. It might not be nice for Officer Cortez to continuously think about accusations against her and her colleagues — but it’s not entirely unwarranted.
Aside from the debate over how the cameras should be used and their implications, there are some significant, tangible affects of this technology. Take the Rialto study, for example. Late last year the Journal of Quantitative Criminology released a study about the Rialto, California Police Department. Over a twelve-month period starting in 2012, officers in Rialto, a city with roughly the same population as Richmond, experienced some significant changes as a result of the implementation of body cameras.
When officers wore body cameras, use of force by officers went down by 59 percent, and reports against officers dropped a staggering 87 percent compared those who didn’t wear body cameras. The study discovered that the mere visibility of the cameras and the perception of being watched has kind of forced everyone to be on their best behavior.
Jeff Brantingham is an anthropologist at UCLA studying the mathematics of crime. In addition to his work with predictive policing, he is currently researching through the troves of data collected from body cameras for the LAPD, and he is familiar with this phenomena.
Jeff Brantingham: It’s called the “audience effect.” When you know you’re being watched by a member of the audience, or by an audience, you behave differently then when you believe you’re not being watched by an audience, and this is a very widely spread known effect. That’s sort of the domain in which body worn video seems to be playing a role. It’s creating an audience, and people change their behaviors in ways that benefit both the police and the public. Or I should say may benefit the public, because there is still so much to be understood about that.
Sean: To be clear, Jeff doesn’t study social affects of the body cameras. He’s more interested in the context of the recorded information — how people understand where and when data are recorded, and how that can be used to better train officers. His research — like RPD officer’s experience with the body cameras — is early on, still finding its feet.
The results of his research, along with the worth of body cameras, will be determined over time. Like any good experiment, if the use of the body cameras is to be a success, it will have to be well conceived, carefully executed, and precisely controlled. Inconsistencies in RPD policy and practice, hardware difficulties, and issues of mistrust from the public could limit the cameras potential for transparency, evidence gathering, and accountability. But, as Officer Cortez and Sergeant Abetkov said in the beginning — it’s a process. The kinks are still being ironed out.
For now, the officers of the Richmond Police Department are recording data throughout their shifts, and hoping that the cameras can be useful. Just what that use should be, however, is up for debate.
That’s all we have for the Radio Free Richmond podcast. Thanks for listening.
For more about podcasts, read here:
Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned, from the Justice Department
Articles from the ACLU
Effects of Body Worn Cameras from the Police Foundation
RFR Podcast: Body Cameras in the RPD, Part 2: Policy vs Practice
RFR Podcast: Body Cameras in the RPD, Part 1: History and Hardware