As protests over police shootings continue across the U.S., outfitting officers with body cameras has become a go-to solution for many who say the technology will provide objective evidence and reduce complaints and use of force.
Spokane police will soon be part of a growing body of research to see whether those claims are true. Two separate projects – one led by an Arizona State University professor, another by a University of Washington doctoral student – are studying the department’s body camera program, which is still in its early stages after a four-month pilot program last year.
Michael White, an ASU criminology professor, will look at the cameras’ impacts in Spokane and Tempe, Arizona.
Half of Spokane’s patrol force has been randomly selected to wear cameras for six months starting this week. The other patrol officers will function as a control group. White will track use of force and citizen complaints for both groups, but the control group won’t start wearing cameras until early 2016. He also has received department records on complaints and use of force going back five years.
The data will let White see how the same officers perform when they’re wearing a camera versus when they’re not.
“That’s a really rigorous research design, but it also makes sense for the department logistically,” he said. Having officers begin wearing cameras in batches will give the department more room to address digital storage issues and other technical challenges that may crop up.
Many supporters of body cameras cite a 2012 study in Rialto, California, that showed cameras reduced citizen complaints and use of force. But there’s little research on more qualitative questions about how officers and citizens feel about the technology.
White plans to call citizens who have encounters with police wearing the cameras and see how they feel about the encounter, as well as the presence of the camera.
“No one’s really talked to citizens about their attitudes regarding this technology. There’s this presumption that the citizens will deem this as a positive thing,” he said, but no research has been done to support that claim.
Spokane police have done a number of community presentations about body cameras since last fall and advertise them on their website as examples of public outreach.
But members of the civilian police ombudsman commission have criticized that presentation at multiple meetings earlier this year, saying that police have been giving the same presentation for months and don’t appear to write down feedback from community members.
In response, the commission is forming a body camera stakeholder group, which will meet with the department and help guide body camera policy. Chief Frank Straub has said he welcomes input from that group as the department moves forward.
Tim Schwering, who oversees the body camera program and other accountability projects for Spokane police, said he is eager to learn about the community reactions from White’s study.
“He’s kind of just taking a deeper dive into that,” he said. “I can only do so much doing a Power Point presentation and taking 10 minutes of questions about that.”
Larger questions about the privacy of people who appear in body camera videos also remain unresolved after the Legislature failed to pass a law enforcement-backed bill that would have limited disclosure of body camera videos under the Public Records Act.
That means the department could get overwhelmed with records requests for video footage, which can take a significant amount of time to review and redact.
“That’s going to be the big one. I’d love to tell you we have the answers. We don’t,” Schwering said.
A University of Washington researcher studying Spokane police hopes to provide more insight into those issues from an officer’s perspective.
Bryce Newell is a University of Washington doctoral student at the Information School and is interested in surveillance systems and “balancing privacy rights with public access,” he said.
He’s been interviewing officers in Spokane and Bellingham since last September about their perception of body cameras and is especially interested in the privacy issues they pose.
He found many officers who chose to wear cameras said they wanted objective evidence in case of a false complaint about misconduct. But over time, officers also grew concerned about the potential privacy violation caused by public records requests for footage that often shows people in sensitive situations.
“The officers on their own would really want to talk about those issues because they were really concerned about it,” Newell said. In one case, he said, an officer he interviewed spent a long time on YouTube trying to find a way to get his body camera video taken down because he was concerned about privacy for the people in it.
“I think it’s important that we strike some balance of allowing public access to footage in cases where use of force is alleged … because those are situations where as a public we need that transparency in order to get those social benefits of cameras in the first place,” he said. But that also has to be balanced with concerns for individual privacy, he added.
Newell hopes to present preliminary results of his research to Spokane police later this month.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter