Could “Contagious Accountability” Save Your Agency $$$ On Body-Worn Cameras?

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A new study of body-worn cameras suggests that even partially equipping a patrol force with BWCs could produce a precipitous overall drop in citizen complaints, while saving a department significant costs.

Researchers found that once body cams were introduced on a limited basis in seven police agencies in the US and the United Kingdom, complaints against officers plunged a whopping 93% overall in the following 12 months.

Even the agency that still drew the largest number of complaints dropped from 558 in the year before cameras were introduced to just 33 in the year after. In another agency, complaints went from 331 to seven. One department’s complaint tally went to zero.

The investigative team credits the sharp declines largely to a change in officer behavior, brought about by what it terms “contagious accountability.”

Lead author on this study is Dr. Barak Ariel, a lecturer in experimental criminology at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology in England, who led an international research group of seven colleagues. (Ariel earlier conducted a groundbreaking study of the impact of body cams on use-of-force complaints in Rialto, CA, which we reported on in Dec., 2013 [see FSN #272].)

BIG NUMBERS. In the new study, the cooperating departments served populations ranging from 161,400 to 751,500 and totaling 1,875,687. Shifts of patrol officers on these agencies were randomly assigned to work with cameras or without while on duty. The shifts were changed weekly and were balanced as to day and night and days of the week.

In all, more than 4,200 shifts and more than 1,800 “front line” officers were involved, across more than 1.4 million hours.

Because of the random shift assigning, all officers ended up working tours of duty both camera-equipped and camera-free by the time the test period came to a close.

“[O]fficers were not able to exercise any personal discretion in deciding when cameras were turned on,” Ariel reports. They were to be on throughout the shift, “during every interaction with members of the public,” except when officers were “conversing with informants,” dealing with “serious sexual assaults,” traveling between calls, or on break.

For their on-camera contacts, officers were to warn subjects “as soon as possible” that the encounter was being videotaped—an element of the experiment that the researchers consider a “quintessential component” of the outcome.

BIG RESULTS. Across the seven cooperating agencies, “1,539 [official] complaints were lodged against police officers in the 12 months preceding the study,” an average of 1.20 complaints per officer, Ariel notes.

In the year after cameras were introduced, complaints dropped to a total of 113, or 0.08 per officer. “This marks an overall reduction of 93% in the incidence of complaints,” the researchers note. Broken down by department, the decline ranged from a low of 44% to a high of 100%. Four of the seven departments registered 94% or above.

Of importance: complaints against officers diminished sharply even when they were not wearing cameras. In fact, there was no significant difference between the two conditions, the researchers found.

Much of the published paper on the study is spent theorizing on why this was the case.

DETERRENT EFFECTS. One reason body cams are associated with lowered complaints, the researchers point out, is because of the “observer effect,” well-documented in psychology literature. When we’re aware that “someone else” (the neutral camera in this circumstance) is watching, we “become more prone to socially acceptable behavior and [experience] a heightened need to cooperate with rules,” lest doing something “morally or socially wrong” leads to negative consequences.

That’s why the initial warning that the camera is on is so important, Ariel writes. This “verbal prompt” may “jolt” both sides into “thinking a little more before they act.” Ariel calls this “the announcement effect.”

But why were complaints down overall in this study—even on shifts when officers weren’t wearing cameras?

One possibility, the researchers suggest, is “the contagious accountability effect.” Briefly, this assumes that officers learn to modify complaint-producing behavior when they are being recorded by a camera and continue to act that way even when they are no longer under “surveillance.”

Also, officers who are not wearing cameras are well aware of others who are and perhaps “impressed by [their] new practices, copy them.” This might explain why officers in the cooperating departments who were not taking part in the study (such as neighborhood police teams, special victim support teams, etc.) contributed their share to the complaint decline. “Everyone was affected…and collectively everyone in the department(s) attracted fewer complaints,” Ariel writes.

BIG SAVINGS? Because of the diffusion phenomenon—red meat for learning theorists and psychology scholars interested in the effects of “priming”—Ariel’s team raises the possibility that departments could introduce body cams on a limited scale and “still provide a desirable effect.”

The cost savings would be notable, “particularly in an age of public domain austerity”—perhaps half the price of a full-scale rollout.

The researchers urge caution in considering BWCs a panacea—a simple “technological fix”—for all the deep-rooted issues that today plague police-community relations. Still, notes Ariel, “most departments would be only too happy to reduce [complaints] to a minimum…. [M]ore complaints equate to more problems for [a] department to deal with.” And when grievances are supported by the courts, they can “cost police departments millions of dollars that they do not have.”

This study was recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Criminal Justice & Behavior, under the title “Contagious Accountability: A Global Multisite Randomized Controlled Trial on the Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police.” It can be accessed by clicking here.

Dr. Ariel can be contacted at: ba285@cam.ac.uk

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