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Police bodycams are not a cure-all — but they help

By in Press Enterprise on November 3, 2017

By The Editorial Board

Criminal justice remains the subject of a divisive and heated debate in America, and a new study issued by the District of Columbia mayor’s office has returned attention to the value of equipping police with body cameras.

Contrary to expectation, the paper called into question whether bodycams can be relied on to measurably reduce misconduct and excessive force by police.

Common sense and pilot programs, including the important initiative taken in Los Angeles to implement the technology, suggest bodycams can provide accountability and objectivity in law enforcement situations where everyone involved can benefit. What’s more, from the standpoint of procedural justice and citizen-led politics, the decision to try out bodycams should not be put at the mercy of whatever the latest study seems to imply. Even rigorous studies can have limited applicability or show merely correlation and not causation. And even highly trustworthy studies should not simply usurp the place of deliberative democracy and local government.

It appears likely that one reason bodycams proved relatively ineffective at lessening misconduct and excessive force is the work D.C. police have already undertaken to ameliorate and address those problems. While bodycams may “help improve behavioral outcomes in departments with notable misconduct issues,” the paper surmised, “the elevated scrutiny” encountered by the D.C. police, “combined with a sustained effort to implement reforms under external monitoring, may have already helped root out many of these types of issues.”

So the study, though important, is limited and qualified. It does suggest bodycams are neither a panacea nor a waste. They are probably best understood as just one tool to provide greater transparency into police operations and to improve opportunities for holding people on both sides of the camera accountable for their actions. Be mindful of their limits.

The study shouldn’t do much to affec bodycam policies in California. So far, the […]    

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