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Will more vigilant eyes on police officers make law enforcement more accountable and make everyone – the police and the public – safer?
These are key questions about police-worn body cameras, but there is mixed evidence that they can change police behavior, improve trust between law enforcement and citizens, or are worth the cost and other disadvantages.
Ashley Southall, my colleague who studies crime and policing in New York, recently wrote about the nuanced results of a year-long pilot study of body cameras. The investigation found that wearing the cameras resulted in higher reporting of mock stops, which have led to allegations of racial bias and harassment against the New York Police Department and allowed more transparency in police activities.
This finding doesn't tell the whole story. Ashley spoke to me about the benefits of police cameras and where the hopes for the technology fall short.
Shira: The report found that New York police officers wearing body cameras reported nearly 40 percent more people stopping on the street. Why?
Ashley: The federal monitor, which oversees stop-and-frisk changes in the police department, believed that when they stopped someone to look for criminal activity, officers weren't always sure they were doing the right thing. These stops were – when checked by regulators or the federal monitor – more questionable and sometimes even illegal than reported stops that were not recorded.
However, the officers knew that if they did not document these stops, they could get into trouble. The monitor believed the concern weighed on the officers when they were wearing a camera.
Did wearing the body cameras reduce the likelihood that the officers would use force?
No, this investigation found that the body cameras did not significantly influence arrests or the use of force by officers. An earlier study in Washington came to similar results.
What are the hopes for body cameras and what is the reality?
One of the great hopes is that the public can see an independent recording of questionable or fatal encounters.
However, these expectations are not always met. When police cameras are in place, they are not always quickly or fully made available to the public. If so, Sometimes the video is inconclusive, leaving a void that is filled by allegations that the police are hiding something.
What do cops say about body cameras?
For ordinary officers, body cameras can be a blessing or a curse.
Even an officer working with his best understanding of the law might stop and find someone without meeting the standard of reasoned suspicion. When the person makes a complaint, video with a body camera can increase the likelihood that a mistake will result in criminal discipline. On the other hand, if someone makes a false complaint about the use of force, the footage from the body camera can confirm that the officer did his job correctly.
Are there examples of body cameras that are helping change policing?
They're starting to change how the N.Y.P.D. handles emergency calls.
For years, groups including New York Public Interest Attorneys have urged mental health professionals or crisis workers, rather than police officers, to be the first to respond to nonviolent people in an emotional or mental health crisis. New York recently announced a pilot program for this.
Many factors influenced politics, but body camera footage of officials killing people in emotional distress contributed to making it unsustainable for the city to carry on as it is. The footage also made it easier for the police to convince themselves.
What is your lesson from this research?
The great advantages are that body cameras are full of possibilities, but you have to do something with the technology. And it's not a magical cure for police misconduct or lack of public trust in law enforcement.
Requiring body cameras, turning on officers, and reviewing the videos can be extremely helpful. However, its effectiveness depends on how willing law enforcement is to use, share, and learn from the videos.
(For more information on the potential pros and cons of the technology in law enforcement, see my colleague Cade Metz's article on some of the police departments that use drones to respond to emergencies.)
Tip of the week
Stupid stuff is better sometimes
The New York Times consumer technology columnist Brian X. Chen is back with a mind exercise before buying an Internet-connected home device.
There's a "smart" version of just about every home appliance you can think of, including doorbells, thermostats, coffee makers, and light switches.
But before you buy any internet connected product for yourself or your loved ones this holiday season, ask yourself: when is a stupid thing better? Here are some smart products that I find useful and some that are not:
Its worth it:
Lightbulbs: When you're ready to go to bed and say, "Alexa, turn off the lights," you need to get up to flip the light switch in the room.
Plug: It is practical to control everything that is connected to a socket with a smartphone app. I notice that my space heater turns off when I sleep and turns on when I wake up.
And here are some smart products that I hate:
Large Kitchen Appliances: Fridges with screens and cameras that notify you when you're low on milk are a thorn in your side and expensive to repair if they inevitably break. I never thought my fridge would be connected to the internet.
Car consoles: I prefer a stereo with physical buttons and a phone holder to display a map on my smartphone. These large touchscreen consoles divert your gaze from the street.
Doorbells: The doorbell of the ringtone, which includes an internet-connected security camera, has become a popular way of documenting parcel theft, but it doesn't seem to alleviate the problem – and leads to a loss of privacy. I recently installed a stupid $ 30 doorbell that charges itself every time you press a button. How neat is that?
(Also check out the smart home devices recommended by the staff at Wirecutter, The Times' product recommendation site.)
Before we go …
"Everyone prepares for the worst and holds their breath": My colleagues Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari explained how retailers and delivery companies are trying to manage the online orders that will travel this month over the American delivery networks already busy by the pandemic. You wrote that according to an accounting during this holiday season, 7.2 million more packages have to be sent every day than the system can handle. (More on this in Tuesday's newsletter.)
"Facebook Mothers" and the "Malarkey Factory": Times tech columnist Kevin Roose examined the digital strategy of Joe Biden's presidential campaign. The tactic included paying attention to women who shared a lot of uplifting material on Facebook and choosing when to tackle false rumors that were amplified by the Trump campaign and its allies.
Hacking technology forever: Tyler Skluzacek has developed a smartwatch app that detects traumatic nightmares and gently vibrates to interrupt the bad dream. Tyler and his father Patrick reported to NPR. The app was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of PTSD-related nightmare disorders.
Yes you are right! A number of readers questioned my point in Friday's newsletter that services like HBO Max and Netflix offer something unique that gives entertainment companies complete control over their programming. They pointed out that Hollywood companies also owned cinemas and had exclusive deals with writers, actors, directors, and others.
I still believe what is happening now is different because online entertainment can be distributed to people's households. But thank you, reader, for reminding me that what appears completely new is often not so.
A mother elk and her calf cuddle in the snow.
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