Study on police body cameras claims it increases officer assault, then contradicts itself

A new study suggests wearing body cameras is more dangerous for officers than people realize…maybe. European Journal of Criminology researchers looked at eight police forces (without saying WHERE they were) in a geographic area of over 2M citizens. The data seems to suggest body cameras actually mean more civilians are willing to physically harm police than expected (emphasis mine):

Using the original metric, the rate of assaults against officers per 1000 arrests was 15% higher when cameras were present. In real terms this meant that for every 22 assaults in control shifts per 1000 arrests …there were 25 assaults in treatment shifts…There were opposing results, and effects where assaults increased came from the smallest studies (Site B and Site D). Removing these smaller studies means that the result was nonsignificant, but the point estimate was again positive (d = 0.051; SE = 0.060; 95% CI: –0.066–0.169).

The study then admits the results are really arbitrary.

First, there are still more studies being conducted as part of this research and as results come in the synthesised results reported here may change. Second, despite the robust methods used in these studies from around the world, the data used represent a convenience sample of police forces, and experiences in other jurisdictions may vary. Third, as we acknowledge above, different jurisdictions have varying definitions of use of use or how assaults against officers are classified, and this may affect the comparability of results between jurisdictions.

See, this is the problem with crime studies: their results are never constant, and always changing, because crime is never really constant. How often do cities dispute crime statistics whenever they get released? So the same bit of skepticism needs to be levied at this study on police body cameras. It might be possible to do a more accurate study by “creating” two towns, give one police force body cameras, withhold body cameras from another, and study the results over a ten year people, but even then there’s no guarantee those results could be counted upon because of how conditions change.

This isn’t stopping anti-body camera websites from trumpeting the results. From

The study speculated that if an officer tells a suspect a camera is on, it may escalate the situation into an assault but how many officers actually tell a suspect that?  A more probably answer and the study eluded to it is that with cameras running, police officers are “less assertive” which makes them more vulnerable to an assault.

But this is just a giant maybe. The study speculates why body cameras might not be working, but it’s only a guess (emphasis mine).

Furthermore, the variability in our results also tells us that the BWVs worked in some places, some of the time, but did not work in others. Compared to the control conditions, an increase in use of force against suspects as a result of using BWVs is a puzzle. By virtue of deterrence alone, BWVs should increase compliance and, subsequently, less force will be used; yet, BWVs were found to exacerbate force in some instances. We need to understand more about this. One direct explanation might be that BWVs escalate an already inflamed police–public encounter, which results in more rather than less force being used. It might be that when BWVs are introduced into some ongoing police–public interactions, the suspect, officer or both become more aggressive.

The biggest issue with this study is European Journal of Criminology doesn’t name which cities they took data from. For all we know they looked at London; Paris; Missoula, Montana; East St. Louis; and Dallas before publishing the results. They could have cherry-picked the best, and worst, results to tailor their study or thrown darts at a map. The study admits their own data is incomplete:

In other jurisdictions such as England and Wales, there is no national, organised collection of data on police use of force, barring the use of Tasers. This means that it is not possible to establish baseline levels of use of force for English and Welsh police forces. If this is the case, then much of what is published on use of force may be confounded by this lack of systematic evidence (McDowall et al., 2015). Conversely, when looking at assaults against police officers in the US, there are long-run time-series going back several decades based on the Uniform Crime Report. For example, the FBI law enforcement officers killed and assaulted (LEOKA) data (FBI, 2014) and data collected by the Police Roll of Honour Trust in the UK (Police Roll of Honour Trust, 2015) show that assaults against officers have declined, as have deaths of officers (but there are notable limitations to how UK data on assaults against police are recorded).2 At the same time, and very similar to the recording of use of force, these datasets are generally incomplete and inconsistent. Thus, we have no reliable systematic figures on the extent of ‘force’ in police–public encounters, nationally as well as locally

I’m pro-good cop and pro-body cameras because I want to see what happens between officers and civilians. I do think they increase accountability on both sides and give a clearer picture of what happens when the two interact. There are times where officer-involved shootings seem justified until the camera shows otherwise. There are times with officer-involved shootings don’t appear justified, but video shows it was. Is it possible officers are less likely to be confrontational with suspects because of a body camera? Sure, but it’s also possible someone having a bad day just lashes out and hits someone. The data is too arbitrary to be used to definitively say, “Yes, cameras are a bad thing” or “No, cameras are great.” This study isn’t going to do anything, except cause both sides on the body camera debate to dig in and yell, “See!” instead of actually sitting down and talking on what the solution should be.

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Jazz Shaw 1:01 PM on May 27, 2023