Body Worn Video Steering Group

Q&A Body Camera Research in Las Vegas

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Ana Ley, of the Las Vegas Sun reports: The reasons for police departments to equip their officers with body cameras seem obvious: video documentation of incidents, fewer complaints against officers and, ultimately, a better relationship with the public.

Researcher Chip Coldren

Amid the aftermath of two controversial deaths involving officers in Missouri and New York this year, officials nationwide are grappling with a wave of anger at police, playing out in peaceful protests and violent confrontations. There’s hope that body cameras — which President Barack Obama vowed to fund federally — will help quell public unrest.

But as agencies scramble to equip their ranks, experts are calling for restraint, pointing to questions about the performance and cost effectiveness of this relatively new technology.

A Las Vegas pilot program examining the use of body cameras by Metro Police officers may answer those questions as police departments around the country consider additions to their gadget arsenals.

The yearlong project will be overseen by UNLV professor Bill Sousa and Virginia-based researcher Chip Coldren, who is familiar with Metro Police. As an analyst with CNA Corp., he worked with the Justice Department in studying Metro’s use-of-force policies, leading to sweeping changes at the department, including the camera pilot program.

Coldren sat with the LV Sun recently to explain what the team of experts hopes to discover and how their findings could have national impact. This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lots of law enforcement agencies have been purchasing these devices in recent months. Is that wise?

As is the case with a lot of things, people will make decisions to go forward with cameras before knowing how beneficial they can be or what the impacts really are. At face value it seems to be a good thing — in the press and anecdotally among police communication channels, positive things are being learned. But it’s hard to know in a short amount of time what the overall impact of this new technology might be.

One of the impacts of the study will be to at least give police agencies, decision makers, and policy makers a better understanding about the impacts that body-worn cameras can have on police organizations, on officers themselves, on communities and citizenry, and on public safety. There are a lot of things to be learned, and it takes some time for those reactions to develop and be assessed.

So how long can we expect to wait for answers?

Now that we have a study mechanism and design in place, there’s not a lot of research activity going on. We just have to wait a year to collect the data to see what the outcome is.

What are some of the big questions the study is supposed to answer?

One big question, obviously, is whether this changes police behaviour. Las Vegas got started on this in the first place because it wanted to change officer behaviour regarding use of force and citizen engagement. That came out as a finding from an earlier study as something that they should be concerned about.

Cameras can be a mechanism to change officer behaviour, use of force and citizen behaviour, including language, courtesy and respectfulness. There should be fewer citizen complaints, which translates to possibly building better feelings of trust and legitimacy with the public, cost savings and less time spent on administrative reviews and things like that.

Another question is whether body-worn cameras will reduce police productivity and their engagement with citizenry? If officers are concerned about what the cameras will show, they may make fewer arrests. They may back off some of those formal aspects of their job because of concern and fear.

The study is estimated to cost $1.6 million (most of which will come from Metro’s budget). What’s going to determine whether these devices were worth the money?

Let’s just say that, as a hypothetical, we find that the introduction of cameras reduces citizen complaints by 25 percent. Then we find that each citizen complaint costs $250. So if there were 500 less complaints in a year, then you have so many thousands of dollars in savings. Then you have to look at how much it cost to buy the cameras and install them. If we don’t save that much money but there are fewer complaints, on balance, it’s probably still a good thing.

But if there is, say, 25 percent reduction in complaints but a 50 percent increase in costs, legislators and people who make the budgets may say it’s not worth it.

Other studies have been done about body cameras, including one in mid-size Rialto, Calif., that is often referenced by proponents.What makes this project different?

This is one of the larger agencies that has gone with such rigorous research. New York police are doing a little study with 60 body cameras. Los Angeles is also doing it with 60 cameras. Big cities are doing it, but they’re not doing a randomized experimental design, which I think is the best way to get at the question of impact.

(Metro’s study will examine differences in behaviour among 197 officers wearing body cameras and 190 who are not.)

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