Chelsea Lenhart, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
There have been 123 homicides in the District of Columbia as of October 16, 2015. Compared to 2014 crime data, the District homicide rate has increased by 44 percent. Previously known as the “murder capital,” D.C. has experienced decreasing homicide rates since the 1990s. The increased rate of homicides this year has residents worried that D.C. may be returning to rough times.
D.C. Chief of Police Cathy Lanier and Mayor Muriel Bowser blame the increased rate of violence on the increased use of synthetic marijuana. The D.C. Police Union argues that the increase in homicides is due to a lack of officers actively patrolling neighborhoods, specifically the dissolvement of vice units.
Both theories were ignored in the May 2015 budget proposal by Mayor Bowser, which emphasized the need to fit 1,600 D.C. police officers with body cameras. Body cameras entered mainstream discussion about policing after the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri by a white Ferguson police officer. Community members and the American public alike were shocked by the apparent overuse of force. Demands for a detailed account of what led to the officer discharging his gun were heard in neighborhoods across the country. Popular media exalts body cameras as the number one means to hold officers accountable for their actions when interacting with the public. Body cameras on police are necessary, especially in cities like San Antonio and Jersey City, where high rates of police violence towards civilians exists. Until evidence proves body cameras decrease homicide rates, they aren’t necessary in D.C.
Evidence Supporting Body Cameras
A 2014 study by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services examined the perceived versus actual benefits of police using body-worn camera technology. With any new technology, minimal quantitative data makes it difficult to correctly determine correlations between cause and effect. In this study, empirical evidence is used to determine if the perceived benefits of body cameras are valid.
There are also concerns about the use of body-worn camera technology by police officers. These concerns range from privacy of both civilians and officers to health and safety concerns for officers to the necessary investments required by police departments to pay for the equipment and properly train officers on equipment use.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, transparency is crucial for policing in order to build public trust in police officers and benefits the community overall . Unfortunately, studies conducted in the United States have not adequately examined the views and perceptions of citizens regarding body-worn cameras by the police. A meta-study of recent news articles covering the topic should be conducted to determine if the public believes that body cameras will improve transparency and shape views of police legitimacy.
The Journal of Quantitative Criminology determined that body-worn cameras result in decreased use of force by police officers when interacting with civilians. The 12 month study randomly selected officers to equip with body cameras and recorded all contact with civilians. The evidence showed that the use of force complaints decreased from 0.7 per 1,000 contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts when an officer was wearing a body camera. Likewise, officers noted civilians significantly reduced their level of negative behavior once they noticed the body camera.
Evidence supports the decreased number of civilian complaints against officers when body cameras are present. Footage from body cameras eliminates traditional “he said, she said” hearsay prevalent with many civilian complaints. Now, video evidence can be used to support or negate the civilian’s complaint. Likewise, studies in the United Kingdom demonstrate that police body cameras result in more documentation of evidence for prosecuting individuals who commit crimes, resist arrest, or cause disturbances in the community.
Numerous cases of body camera use for training purposes exist outside of the United States, but there is currently only one case of body worn cameras being used for training purposes inside the U.S. However, applications of the technology for training may increase as more police departments inside the U.S. employ body cameras.
The Right Choice For DC?
Evidence surrounding body cameras demonstrates their usefulness in community policing. However, the District is experiencing an increase in homicide rates, something that cannot be solved by equipping officers with body cameras. Although body cameras have numerous benefits, there is no link between the use of body cameras by police and a decrease in crime rates. Deploying body cameras in the District may help improve community relationships, but it does not address the immediate problem.
The budget line for MPD should be applied to tactics that decrease crime rates rather than implementing new vogue technology. Until evidence demonstrates that body cameras deter homicides on the streets, precious funding should be allocated to proven policing methods.