Forget Body Cams: The Alternative Police Have Been Waiting For

Police Violence Calls for Measures beyond De-escalation Training

Forget Body Cams: The  Alternative Police Have Been Waiting For

Black people are about three times more ly than white people to be killed by a police officer. Outrage over this long-running and relentless situation has boiled over in the past few weeks, with people across the U.S.

taking to the streets to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others. The demonstrations—themselves largely peaceful—have involved notable incidents of police violence toward protesters.

These events have further amplified questions abficers’ use of force and one of the most popular strategies aimed at reducing it: de-escalation.

The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the surge of civil unrest that followed prompted then president Barack Obama to assemble the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

A resulting report called for nationwide changes in law enforcement, with the aim of promoting “effective crime reduction while building public trust.

” De-escalation was one strategy that subsequently gained many new followers.

Although the approach is widely employed to reduce violence and aggression in health care and mental health settings, its application for law enforcement is poorly defined.

In a policing context, de-escalation aims to decrease the use of force against civilians by teaching officers techniques to slow things down and use time, space and communication to find an alternative—practices that run counter to much law-enforcement training.

Police are traditionally taught to make decisions and act as quickly as possible. And they learn early on that society not only authorizes but sometimes expects them to use force as a means of coercion.

Un strategies that specifically target discrimination—from the racial sensitivity training adopted in the 1980s to more recent implicit bias training—de-escalation is touted by proponents as a means of reducing violence across the board. The approach, they say protects civilians and officers a and enables police to peacefully manage crowds of protestors.

De-escalation has become one of the types of training most frequently requested by police departments in recent years, says Robin Engel, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Criminal Justice.

A recent CBS News poll of 155 departments indicates that at least 71 percent of them offer some form of de-escalation training, although it is not always mandatory. But in the past couple of weeks, U.S.

news outlets have reported numerous, often startling stories of police violence against individuals and groups of protesters across the country.

Many departments in cities where such uses of force have taken place—including those in Seattle and Phoenix (neither of which responded to requests for comment)—require their officers to undergo training in de-escalation. So why does it often break down?

De-escalation Is Not Enough

In 2016 Campaign Zero—a law-enforcement reform initiative developed by Black Lives Matter activists—helped conduct an analysis of 91 police departments in the largest U.S. cities.

The study found that de-escalation mandates were associated with lower rates of police killings and fewer officers being killed or assaulted in the line of duty—even after accounting for a number of departmental and social factors.

Although a review of cross-disciplinary research on de-escalation found that such training probably has slight-to-moderate benefits and few drawbacks, much of the research has methodological weaknesses—including a lack of control groups, dependence on correlational designs and use of self-reporting rather than observation-based data. Thus, despite promising early findings, Engel argues that there is not yet enough systematic research about de-escalation in policing to show it is effective or to guide its use.

But what is increasingly clear, she says, is that even effective de-escalation training is probably an insufficient solution if it is used on its own. “We know that training alone doesn’t change behavior,” Engel says.

“So you need a strong use-of-force policy that emphasizes the use of de-escalation tactics. And you need to couple that with accountability and supervisory oversight—and then add in the training component. Agencies that have been doing [these things] are [anecdotally] reporting success.

” Similarly, Campaign Zero reports that the departments with the lowest rates of police killings and officer deaths employed four or more of the organization’s 8 Can’t Wait strategies aimed at reducing the use of force.

In addition to de-escalation mandates, this campaign calls for measures such as banning choke holds and changing how the use of force is reported.

Still, measures that seek to reduce the violence—or the unevenness in how it is carried out—without addressing its root cause may be seen as inauthentic.

For example, recently law enforcement officials in some cities have marched and knelt alongside protestors.

Such actions—viewed by many as a show of solidarity—have served to de-escalate heated situations, but some question the sincerity of these gestures.

“De-escalation is a code word for pacification,” says Christen Smith, an associate professor of anthropology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Policing in the Americas uses code words in order to try to frame violent actions as something less violent than what they really are,” adds Smith, who researches state violence in the region, with focuses on Brazil and the U.S.

She contends that calls for de-escalation training—especially in the absence of more comprehensive change—can be used as a political tool to “gift wrap violence in a prettier package” rather than a method to reconfigure the system to keep communities safe in ways that feel equitable.

What Works

Some activists and law-enforcement officials say it may be possible to change police departments —or the criminal justice system itself—to accomplish that goal. Indeed, the communities that have demonstrated success have taken a comprehensive approach to reducing police violence. The police department in Camden, N.J., for example, was disbanded and rebuilt with a new vision in 2013.

“We try to meet the community before anything is an emergency, before there is a crisis,” says Camden police captain Zsakhiem R. James. “We partner with the community, so we’re not seen as an occupying force.

” In addition to such engagement—which sometimes means hosting and attending barbecues and block parties—the department now has a strict and clear use-of-force policy, as well as extensive and ongoing training in de-escalation.

This training includes scripts and virtual role-playing, along with thorough oversight procedures such as monitored body cameras, James says. What is more, he adds, the department has a deep commitment to this different approach to policing.

“This entire department is community-based,” he says. “If you can’t abide by our policies, you just don’t need to work here. People employed by us and working for us must abide by it.”

This type of multipronged strategy to address state-authorized violence and change the face of policing in the U.S. has been gaining traction in recent weeks. Minneapolis has vowed to dismantle its own police department and replace it with a community-led alternative.

And State and national lawmakers have introduced bills that would restrict the use of force, increase civilian oversight and develop tracking systems for officer misconduct.

On June 3 the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP) released several recommendations to local, state and national officials that integrate immediate interventions (including de-escalation) aimed at reducing the use of force with system-wide accountability and steps toward structural change.

“Law enforcement is the dumping ground. When you don’t know who to call, you call the cops,” says former police officer Kyle Kazan, who is now a speaker for LEAP.

“You have to take a step back and ask, ‘What does society need law enforcement for?’ We need to rethink how we handle society’s challenges.

” He argues that ending the War on Drugs, increasing funding for dedicated social workers and outreach workers, and ensuring that officers are held liable for their actions within and across departments would better position law enforcement to help communities.

Such interventions, as well as the movement to defund the police, start to address one of Smith’s major critiques of a reformist approach that stops at training. “There’s a deep-rooted connection between the way that we understand justice in this country, white supremacy and anti-Blackness,” she says, noting that modern policing in the U.S.

grew, in part, slave patrols in the South. “How do you undo that culture? As anthropologists, we know that the only way cultures die is when they disappear into history because of some catastrophic event [such as the collapse of a nation or descent into civil war].

What our generation is tasked with is trying to figure out a way to dismantle this culture without a catastrophic event.”


Body cameras are seen as key to police reform. But do they increase accountability?

Forget Body Cams: The  Alternative Police Have Been Waiting For

Amid widespread calls for police reform, there’s a renewed push from both advocates and lawmakers to require officers to wear body cameras.

This week, New Mexico’s legislature approved a bill that would require all officers in the state to wear body cameras.

In Congress, House Democrats introduced a bill this month that would, among other things, require federal law enforcement to wear body cameras and provide funding and incentives for municipal law enforcement to do the same.

A Republican proposal in the Senate would also establish grant funding to help police departments purchase body cameras and supporting technology for maintenance and data storage.

For nearly two decades, law enforcement agencies have explored and implemented the use of body cameras as a tool to help hold officers accountable and make departments more transparent — a way to help rebuild trust with their communities and reduce citizen complaints. Video footage can also enable departments to collect evidence during investigations or better defend their actions during a particular encounter.

READ MORE: The war on drugs gave rise to ‘no-knock’ warrants. Breonna Taylor’s death could end them

And reform advocates have long called for all officers to be equipped with the technology that could help document excessive use of force and its disproportionate effect on communities of color.

But despite widespread support for body cameras — from politicians, reform advocates, and police departments — the rules around who wears them, when they are activated and what is done with the footage can still vary widely from state to state, and department to department. And research on whether the devices affect officer behavior and accountability has shown mixed results.

When did U.S. police start to use body cameras?

Police in the United Kingdom began experimenting with body-worn cameras in 2005, after which American police showed a “slow growing interest” in them, said Michael White, who is co-director of training and technical assistance for the Justice Department’s body-worn camera policy and implementation program.

By 2013, about one-third of local police departments in the U.S. reported using body cameras, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Around the same time, a study on the Rialto Police Department in California showed a 59 percent reduction in police-reported use of force incidents among officers who used the cameras, said Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate at the Justice Policy Center with the Urban Institute. Data from that study also showed an 87.5 percent decline in citizen complaints against officers who wore the cameras.

Leaders and other stakeholders used the Rialto study to make a case for the use of body cameras, Lawrence said.

“A lot of departments purchased cameras so they wouldn’t be the next Ferguson.”

Another catalyst for widespread adoption of cameras came in 2014, after a white police officer killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Brown’s death came amid a string of other highly publicized police killings of Black people and gave rise to a national debate over policing practices.

Amid that conversation, interest in body cameras for police “exploded,” said White, who is also a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice.

“A lot of departments purchased cameras so they wouldn’t be the next Ferguson,” White said. “There was a lot of emphasis on transparency, on demonstrating to your community that you’re willing to be open and to have some accountability.”

In 2015, the federal government under President Barack Obama also provided more than $23 million to 73 local and tribal police agencies to expand the use of body cameras.

The BJS reported that by 2016, nearly half of the country’s 12,267 local police departments were using body cameras. Among departments with more than 500 full-time officers, 70 percent were using body cameras by that time.

Yet only five states have laws specifically requiring at least some officers to use body cameras, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A memorial set up for Michael Brown is seen in Ferguson, Missouri, October 10, 2014. Brown was killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Brown was unarmed when he was shot at least six times, and outrage over his death has fuelled weeks of sometimes violent protests. REUTERS/Jim Young (UNITED STATES – CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST)

How does law enforcement feel about body cameras?

The initial push for body cameras met some criticism from departments and police unions.

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association in 2016 sued Boston city administrators in an effort to stop a pilot program mandating body cameras for 100 officers. The union cited “increased risk of harm to officers” a study indicating that officers in the U.S. and U.K. who were wearing body cameras were 15 percent more ly to be assaulted.

Three body camera researchers told the NewsHour that while they are familiar with this study, they have not found similar results in other research. A Massachusetts judge rejected the union’s request to delay the body camera program in Boston.

Other police agencies have resisted body cameras because of the costs, according to BJS reports. The Police Executive Research Forum said in a 2018 report that the Dallas Police Department had deployed about 1,000 cameras to cover 30 percent of its officers.

Purchase costs per camera were about $189, but maintenance and storage for the thousands of hours of video footage amounted to $789 per camera for one year. In addition to other administrative staff costs, the annual cost in Dallas was $1,125 per camera, about $1.

1 million in total.

PODCAST: This city already rebuilt its police department. Did it work?

Last year, the Washington Post reported a number of smaller police departments ended their body camera programs because of the high costs. Despite the costs, police departments are generally accepting of body cameras, experts told the NewsHour.

“A lot of chiefs of police want these body cameras, because a lot of times they can also work in the department’s favor and the officers’ favor in depicting a resident’s behavior,” said Kami Chavis, a professor with Wake Forest University School of Law.

For civilian complaints, having access to video footage can work in the officer’s favor, said Andrea Headley, an assistant professor of public affairs with The Ohio State University who researches police-community relations.

Some departments may have civilians review video of an incident before they move forward with a complaint, she said. Upon seeing the video and assessing their own actions, civilians may decide not to pursue the complaint.

What does the latest research indicate about the effectiveness of body cameras?

Early interest in body cameras stemmed from concern about excessive use of force and how race factored into police encounters, Headley said. However, the research on these areas is limited, she added.

According to Headley, there isn’t published research on how body cameras affect racial disparities in policing. “There’s nothing that really looks at that race aspect, which to me is almost baffling.”

Lawrence of the Justice Policy Center said research indicates overall improvement in civilian satisfaction with officers who wear body cameras, but he has not found specific data comparing that satisfaction among different racial groups.

And when it comes to how cameras affect use of force, recent studies are more mixed than the Rialto report, Lawrence said. Later studies were larger and more rigorous, and indicated that the presence of body-worn cameras has minimal effect as a deterrent.

A 2017 study in Washington, D.C., that examined more than 2,000 officers also found body cameras had a negligible effect on officer behavior. “These results suggest that we should recalibrate our expectations of [body cameras’] ability to induce large-scale behavioral changes in policing,” the paper stated.

A 2018 study of 504 officers in the Milwaukee Police Department, conducted by Lawrence and other Urban Institute researchers, found that body cameras had no effect on the lihood officers would use force in the course of their duties.

However, White of the DOJ’s body camera program said he has found that 11 of 19 studies on the subject have shown a reduction in use of force among officers wearing cameras. “I think that’s still pretty strong,” he said.

READ MORE: What is the ‘defund the police’ movement? 5 questions answered

Police accountability is another area where body camera research has had mixed outcomes. According to White, 20 26 studies measuring citizen complaints and body cameras show a “sizable reduction” in citizen complaints against officers wearing cameras. Lawrence’s research also shows decreases in complaints against officers.

But the presence of body camera does not have much effect on whether disciplinary action is taken, Lawrence said. And the prevalence of video technology on street corners and cell phones means that police officers are already filmed regularly in other ways, he added.

Additionally, whether law enforcement releases dashcam or body camera footage, and how much of the video they choose to release, varies between states and jurisdictions. Police in Minneapolis, for instance, released body camera footage of officers’ fatal encounter with Floyd, but it was heavily redacted.

It’s very rare for police to face prosecutions generally, White said, even with the use of body cameras. But in a few high-profile cases, body camera footage has been used against officers in trials that led to convictions. In 2018, a former officer in Texas was convicted of killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.

In the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, four officers were fired and one was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery after dash cam video showed McDonald walking away from the officers, conflicting with an officer’s claims that he was advancing toward him with a knife.

Much more often, body camera footage is used in the prosecution of civilians. One 2016 study found that 92.6 percent of prosecutors’ offices nationally in jurisdictions where police wear body cameras have used that footage as evidence in cases against private citizens, while just 8.3 percent have used it to prosecute police officers.

A demonstrator walks past police officers near Black Lives Matter Plaza as racial inequality protests continue, in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

What do researchers recommend for police body camera programs?

Despite inconsistencies in their findings, researchers told the NewsHour that body cameras can still be an effective tool for police reform and transparency when used properly.

One key challenge is specifying how police body cameras should be used, researchers said. A number of departments give officers discretion to determine when they turn their cameras on and off, while others provide more guidance, Headley said.

White said that getting police officers to activate the cameras can be a challenge. Officers engage in numerous interactions daily, and “an officer may forget; they may decide not to activate because of citizen requests,” White said, or they may leave the camera off for more “nefarious” reasons misconduct.

Chavis said police departments should establish clear criteria for when officers activate cameras, who has access to the video and how often the footage is reviewed. Camera footage may sit for weeks in some cases without review, Headley said.

READ MORE: Ella Jones will be Ferguson’s first black mayor. Here’s what she had to say about race and policing

Police video provides an important opportunity for police departments to train their officers, Chavis and Lawrence said. Police leaders should regularly monitor video to get an understanding of how their officers operate in the field, Lawrence said. Video and audio analytic technology have the potential to help departments flag troubling behavior or language used by officers, he added.

At the federal level, experts said lawmakers can establish clearer standards for agencies while also giving them space to determine how to best use body cameras for their communities. One area to be mindful of, experts said, is civilian privacy and surveillance concerns.

House Democrats’ Justice in Policing Act would provide some specific requirements for body camera activation and public access to video footage. But while requiring and encouraging the use of body cameras has bipartisan support, the legislation includes a number of other measures that would struggle to win support from Senate Republicans.

The proposed legislation is a testament to the long push for police reform, Chavis said, and can provide important federal guidance.

“The ideas that are within this federal bill are solutions that for years police reform advocates have been suggesting. They are not new,” Chavis said. “I think all police want to be well-trained and seen and viewed as professionals. And I think a lot from this legislation can help them do that.”


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