Do body cameras for police officers actually work?

A NYPD police officer demonstrates the camera at a press conference in Queens earlier this month. Image: Getty.

Politics across US cities this year have been marked by a growing tension between police and the citizens they’re there to protect. Police killings of unarmed black men – Michael Garner in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City – and the officers’ later exoneration by grand juries have convinced many that officers aren’t held responsible for their actions. Meanwhile, solidarity protests across US cities have convinced lawmakers that something needs to change.

President Obama’s recommendations for a new and improved police force, outlined in an announcement last week, essentially boil down to “keep things the same, but give officers more training”. His only concrete proposal is for $75m to be spent on police body cameras, which would record police officers in action: that, so the thinking goes, help provide evidence in disputes between police officers and civilians. Over 145,000 people have signed a White House petition to enforce a "Mike Brown Law", in which all officers would be required to wear the cameras.

But in forces like New York’s, where the Commissioner promised yesterday to “re-train members in nonviolent ways of making arrests” (Reuters), will these cameras actually succeed in restoring public faith?

Officers can turn them on and off

Fusion, a US journalistic start-up, surveyed data from five US cities where body cameras have been trialled, and the results are, well, really depressing. They found repeated cases where cameras were turned off when police shot and killed civilians.

In Albuquerque, for example, an officer shot and killed 19-year old Mary Hawkes, but his camera was not turned on. The officer was later fired for turning off his camera at least four times while interacting with the public.

A separate study from the US Department of Justice found that in New Orleans, between January and May this year, cameras were turned off during 60 per cent of incidents in which officers used force. 

Source: Office of the Consent Decree Monitor.

It’s up to individual forces whether they make the use of the cameras compulsory (though it renders them pretty pointless if they don’t). The Justice department, in its recommendations for implementing a body-worn camera program, states:

As a general recording policy, officers should be required to activate their body-worn cameras when responding to all calls for service and during all law enforcement-related encounters and activities that occur while the officer is on duty.

They’re marketed as a way for officers to prove their own innocence

VieVu, the main manufacturer of body cameras, has this image on its website:

In this advertisement, at least, the emphasis is on cops designing and using the technology to prove their own point after an incident. The cameras are not being marketed as a tool for their police force or an independent body to check they’re doing their job properly. 

Pictures don’t always speak louder than words

In the case of Eric Garner, who died in a chokehold during an arrest, the incident was recorded on a cellphone by a bystander – but footage of the unarmed man in a chokehold didn’t sway the grand jury. If, as this incident implies, juries and police forces expect extreme force to be used during arrests (even when dealing with unarmed suspects), then perhaps video evidence won't make any difference to their verdicts.

Youtube screenshot from a cellphone recording of Eric Garner’s arrest. 

They could reduce the use of force

Criminologists at the University of Cambridge conducted a study in California which found that officers not wearing the cameras were twice as likely to use force as officers who were. They also found that there was a decrease in citizen complaints across the force.

Yet Barak Ariel, one of the study’s authors, argues that this isn’t enough evidence to justify widespread usage. He told The Atlantic that, while the technology is “promising”, “we don’t know that it’s working”. He pointed out that it’s unclear how the cameras effect behaviour: they could be reducing civilian force, police force, or both.

Funding for the cameras will depend on a vote in Congress, so it's still unclear whether Obama’s scheme will come to fruition. Either way, it looks like the US will need more than a few cameras to patch up relations between police and the public. 


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.