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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Police body cameras in Spokane don’t encourage better citizen behavior, study says

A new report from an Arizona State University study says Spokane residents filmed on police body cameras generally had a positive view of police after the interaction, but there’s no evidence the cameras actually improved citizen behavior.

The report details a nearly year-long study by criminology professor Michael White looking at perceptions of Spokane’s police body cameras, as well as their impact on officer use of force and citizen complaints.

Many researchers have surveyed people about their perceptions of body cameras, but White’s is the first study in the nation to survey random groups of people who have been filmed on the cameras. Researchers surveyed 249 people who had an encounter with a Spokane police officer wearing a body camera between June and December of 2015. More than 80 percent said the officer acted professionally and treated them fairly and with respect.

“There’s kind of a public tension between some elements of the population (in Spokane) and the police but I think the findings from our study really reflect really positively on the department,” White said.

But the study found fewer than 30 percent of people were aware officers were wearing cameras, and only 3 percent said the camera made them behave more cooperatively. This contradicts the often-repeated claim that body cameras create a “civilizing effect” because people behave better when being recorded.

The department still is finalizing a body camera policy and does not have one posted on its website, but officers are not required to notify people they’re being recorded unless the conversation is private or involves someone who has been arrested. That’s consistent with a 2014 opinion by Attorney General Bob Ferguson, which said Washington’s strict two-party consent and privacy laws did not apply to recordings by police in most situations.

Many other departments White has looked at have similar policies.

“If they don’t know it’s there, obviously that short-circuits the potential for any sort of civilizing effect,” White said.

Spokane residents who were aware police had cameras were much more likely to report the encounter was “procedurally just” than people who were unaware of the cameras. About 60 percent of people aware of the cameras said they felt safer and more confident in the police, though 10 percent said they felt uncomfortable and 10 percent said they felt angry or annoyed about being recorded.

A 2012 study of body cameras in Rialto, California remains the most-cited piece of research on the impact of the cameras. That study showed citizen complaints fell 88 percent after a year-long camera trial, and officer use of force dropped 59 percent.

Other departments, including Fort Collins, Colorado and Birmingham, Alabama, have also reported drops in use of force and citizen complaints after implementing cameras.

Some researchers have theorized those drops are because of the “civilizing effect” on citizens, but White’s research suggests other explanations should be considered. In his other writing on body cameras, he’s suggested improved officer behavior or the fact that citizens are less likely to file frivolous complaints if they know they’re being recorded.

White and his research team have data on officer use of force and citizen complaints going back about six years and plan to analyze how the use of body cameras affects individual officer performance, as well as the department over time. That will give a better idea of how body cameras in Spokane are affecting use of force and complaints.