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Can Body Cameras Improve Policing?

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Do more watchful eyes on police officers make law enforcement more accountable and make everyone — the police and the public — safer?

Those are central questions concerning police-worn body cameras, but evidence has been mixed that they alter police behavior, improve trust between law enforcement and citizens, or are worth the cost and other downsides.

Ashley Southall, my colleague who covers crime and policing in New York, recently wrote about the nuanced findings of a yearlong pilot study of body cameras. The research found that wearing the cameras led to a higher reporting of the bogus stops that have fueled accusations of racial bias and harassment against the New York Police Department, enabling more transparency into police activity.

That finding doesn’t tell the whole story. Ashley spoke with me about the benefits of police body cameras, and where hopes for the technology fall short.

Shira: The report found that New York police officers who wore body cameras reported almost 40 percent more stops of people on the street. Why?

Ashley: The federal monitor who oversees stop-and-frisk changes in the Police Department believed that officers weren’t always sure if they did the right thing when they stopped someone to look for criminal activity. Those stops — when supervisors or the federal monitor reviewed them — were more likely to be questionable and sometimes even unlawful than reported stops that weren’t recorded.

But officers knew they could get in trouble if they didn’t document these stops. The monitor believed that concern was weighing on officers’ minds when they were wearing a camera.

Did wearing the body cameras make it less likely that the officers would use force?

No, this research found the body cameras had no significant effect on arrests or officers’ use of force. A previous study in Washington came to similar conclusions.

What are the hopes about body cameras, and what’s the reality?

One of the big hopes is that the public might see an independent record of questionable or deadly encounters.

But those expectations aren’t always fulfilled. When police body-camera footage exists, it’s not always made available quickly or in full to the public. If it is, sometimes the video is not conclusive, and it leaves a void that gets filled by accusations that police are hiding something.

What do police officers say about body cameras?

For rank-and-file officers, body cameras can be a blessing or a curse.

Even an officer working with his best understanding of the law might stop and search someone without meeting the standard of reasonable suspicion. If the person files a complaint, body-camera video can make it more likely for an error to lead to punitive discipline. On the other hand, if someone files a false complaint of use of force, body-camera footage can affirm that the officer was doing his or her job correctly.

Are there examples of body cameras helping to change policing?

They’re beginning to change how the N.Y.P.D. handles emergency calls.

For years, groups including the New York Lawyers for the Public Interest have pushed for mental health professionals or crisis workers, rather than police officers, to be the first ones responding to nonviolent people in emotional or mental health crises. New York recently announced a pilot program to do that.

Many factors influenced the policy, but body-camera footage of officers killing people in emotional distress helped make it untenable for the city to continue as is. The footage also made it easier for the police to see that for themselves.

What’s your lesson from this research?

The big takeaways are that body cameras are brimming with possibility but you have to do something with the technology. And it’s not a magic remedy for police misconduct or a lack of public confidence in law enforcement.

Requiring body cameras, requiring officers to turn them on and ensuring the videos are reviewed can be tremendously helpful. But the effectiveness depends on how willing law enforcement is to use the videos, share them and learn from them.

(For more on the potential benefits and drawbacks of technology in law enforcement, check out my colleague Cade Metz’s article about some police departments using drones to respond to emergencies.)

Tip of the Week

The New York Times’s consumer technology columnist, Brian X. Chen, is back with a thought exercise before you buy an internet-connected home gadget.

There is a “smart” version of just about every household device you can think of, including doorbells, thermostats, coffee makers and light switches.

But before you buy an internet-connected whatever for yourself or your loved ones this holiday season, ask yourself: When is a dumb thing better? Here are some smart products I believe are useful, and some that are not:

Worth it:

  • Light bulbs: When you’re ready to go to bed, saying, “Alexa, turn off the lights,” beats getting up to hit the light switch across the room.

  • Plugs: It’s handy to control anything plugged into a power outlet with a smartphone app. I schedule my space heater to turn off while I’m asleep and turn on just as I wake up.

And here are some smart products I hate:

  • Large kitchen appliances: Refrigerators with screens and cameras to alert you when you’re low on milk are an eyesore and will be expensive to repair when they inevitably break. I have never wished my refrigerator were connected to the internet.

  • Car consoles: I prefer a stereo system with physical knobs and a phone mount to look at a map on my smartphone. Those large touch-screen consoles are taking your eyes away from the road.

  • Doorbells: The Ring doorbell, which includes an internet-connected security camera, became a popular way to document package thefts, but it doesn’t seem to reduce the problem — and comes with a loss of privacy. I recently installed a dumb $30 wireless doorbell that recharges itself with each button press. How neat is that?

(Also check out the smart home devices recommended by the staff at Wirecutter, the product recommendation site that’s part of The Times.)

  • “Everyone is preparing for the worst and holding their breath”: My colleagues Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari detailed how retailers and delivery companies are trying to manage the online orders that will course through America’s already pandemic-stretched delivery networks this month. They wrote that by one accounting, 7.2 million more packages need to be shipped each day this holiday season than the system has the capacity to handle. (I’ll have more on this in Tuesday’s newsletter.)

  • “Facebook moms” and the “Malarkey Factory”: The Times tech columnist Kevin Roose dug into the digital strategy of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The tactics included devoting attention to women who shared a lot of uplifting material on Facebook, and being selective about when to combat false rumors that were amplified by the Trump campaign and its allies.

  • Hacking technology for good: To help his Army veteran dad with PTSD symptoms, Tyler Skluzacek designed a smartwatch app that recognizes traumatic nightmares and gently vibrates to interrupt the bad dream, Tyler and his father, Patrick, recounted to NPR. The app was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat PTSD-related nightmare disorder.

  • Yes, you’re right! A number of readers took issue with my point in Friday’s newsletter that there was something unique in services such as HBO Max and Netflix that give entertainment companies end-to-end control of their programming. They pointed out that Hollywood companies also used to own movie theaters and had exclusive contracts with writers, actors, directors and others.

    I still believe what’s happening now is different because of the ability to distribute online entertainment to people’s homes. But thank you, readers, for reminding me that what seems entirely novel often isn’t.

A mama moose and her calf cuddle in the snow.

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