New York City is set to begin giving body cameras to its police officers on Thursday.
Under the police department's pilot program, 1,200 officers in 20 precincts will receive the cameras. The officers will also be studied by scientists to see what effect the cameras have on policing.
As police don body cameras across the country, scientists are increasingly working with departments to figure out how the cameras change behavior — of officers and the public.
"Is the camera having an impact on the way officers use force? Is it reducing the number of citizens' complaints? Is it having a negative impact? All of those types of things I would like to know about these cameras," says Peter Newsham, the chief of police in Washington, D.C., where a similar study is just weeks from providing its first answers.
When officials in D.C. decided to deploy cameras a few years ago, the city happened to have a bunch of researchers who were just waiting to do a big, well-controlled study.
The researchers designed a field experiment to systematically compare cops wearing cameras to officers without cameras in one police force, in a major American city.
"We are a newer scientific team," says David Yokum, who works in the D.C. mayor's office. "We've got about 15 folks right now — Ph.D.s in psychology, economics, statistics, and so forth." Yokum directs the The Lab @ DC, which is an effort to bring the scientific method to government. Studying body-worn cameras is one of the lab's first projects.
"It's a massively important social issue," Yokum says. "Cameras are spreading across the country at a very rapid rate."
A recent nationwide survey found that 95 percent of police departments either have a body-worn camera program or plan to implement one. All of this is happening despite a real dearth of data on how those cameras will change policing.
"Technologies tend to always have intended and unintended effects and consequences," says Cynthia Lum, a criminologist at George Mason University.
She's reviewed studies of body-worn cameras and found about 40, but says that research offered no definitive answers. "We're just scratching at the surface to understand what the impacts of body-worn cameras are, either on the police or the people that they serve," Lum says.
For example, one widely cited study done in Rialto, Calif., suggested that cameras dramatically reduced police officers' use of force.
But a different study, published last May, found the story is much more complicated.
"When officers had more discretion as to whether they turn on and off their cameras," Lum explains, "this could potentially lead to increases in use of force."
In Washington, D.C., police officials let the researchers tell them exactly how to hand out the cameras to do the most rigorous study possible; as a result, not every officer got a camera right away.
"At any given period of time, people were randomly assigned to be either receiving the cameras or not," Yokum says.
What makes the D.C. study especially powerful is that it's one of the biggest police departments in the country.
"There's a lot of officers involved," Yokum says. "We're collecting a lot of data with 1,100 different cameras out on the street, and then 1,100 officers that don't have cameras. And so, just the numbers here are very large."
Previous studies have generally been done with smaller police departments, says Anita Ravishankar, one of the researchers on the science team.
What's more, she adds, the D.C. police department allowed researchers to gather data over seven months — a long timeline. Gradually, more officers got the cameras and now almost the entire force is wearing them.
"This was a big thing for the department to be willing to do and a huge deal for us to be able to do the study well and correctly," Ravishankar says.
Their group will be analyzing their data to look at the cameras' potential impact on a slew of things including use of force, citizen complaints, assaults against officers, and rates of convictions and plea bargains. They hope to have findings that they can make public in the coming weeks.
The New York Police Department will take the next year to compare the cops in its pilot program to officers without cameras.
In D.C., some officers say the cameras have an overall positive effect.
"I was hesitant in wearing it in the beginning," says Charles Monk, an officer in the Metropolitan Police Department's First District. But as he interacted with the public, his attitude changed.
"It changes people's personalities when they see you wearing it," he says. "I have to be very professional. And in return, the citizen — they're very professional."
And no matter what this study ultimately shows about the cameras, one thing seems already clear, Monk says: "They're here to stay."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
These days, in addition to a gun and handcuffs, many police around the country carry a small clip-on camera. New York City's police department today became the latest to put body-worn cameras on some of its officers. There's not a lot of science on how these cameras actually affect policing. That's why researchers have been busy working with police here in Washington, D.C.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more. And a warning to our listeners - this report contains audio from a police encounter that did not go well.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: A new shift is starting at the Metropolitan Police Department's First District stationhouse.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Officers show up for roll call and go over to some lockers. Inside are cameras. They look like little black boxes that the officers clip onto their shirts.
CHARLES MONK: I was hesitant on wearing it in the beginning. I found out it is very beneficial to me as a police officer.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Charles Monk has worked for the police department for 18 years.
MONK: It changes people's personalities when they see you wearing it. I get out. I have to be very professional. And in return, the citizen - they're very professional.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he says the camera ensures that his perspective gets recorded. But the cameras don't always capture a clear picture.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #1: Put the gun down.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #2: Four-zero-three, we have black male holding a gun. He refuses to drop it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: In this video released by the mayor's office last year, cops plead with a man to drop a gun.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #3: Please drop the gun, sir.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The video is dark, shaky. It's hard to see the guy. And then at the critical moment...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER #4: Just stay there, bro.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All you see is the side of a car that the officer is hiding behind. The man later died. After an investigation that reviewed this camera footage along with other evidence, no officers were charged.
Now, that was one video from one camera. So far, police here have recorded 237,000 hours of video. And the crazy thing is, no one knows if wearing those cameras is truly making things better or worse.
CYNTHIA LUM: Technologies tend to always have intended and unintended effects and consequences.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Cynthia Lum is a criminologist at George Mason University. She recently reviewed studies of body-worn cameras and says we need more actual scientific evidence.
LUM: We're just scratching at the surface to understand what are the impacts of body-worn cameras either on the police or on the people that they serve.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For example, one study done in Rialto, Calif., suggested that cameras dramatically reduced police officers' use of force. It's been widely cited. But she says a different study recently found the story is much more complicated.
LUM: When officers had more discretion as to whether they turn on and off their cameras, this could potentially lead to increases in use of force.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The police chief here in the nation's capital is Peter Newsham. Ask him what he'd like to know about these cameras, and he immediately rattles off a long list of questions.
CHIEF PETER NEWSHAM: Is the camera having an impact on the way officers use force? Is it reducing the number of citizens' complaints? Is it having a negative impact?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To get some answers, his department is turning to science.
DAVID YOKUM: We are a newer scientific team. We've got about 15 folks right now, Ph.D.s in psychology, economics, statistics and so forth.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: David Yokum works in the mayor's office where he runs The Lab @ D.C., an effort to bring the scientific method to government. Studying body-worn cameras is one of its first projects. Police officials let the researchers tell them exactly how to hand out the cameras. Not every officer got one right away.
YOKUM: At any given period of time, people were randomly assigned to either be receiving the cameras or not.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was a field experiment to systematically compare cops with cameras to cops without in one police force in a major American city. He says what makes this especially powerful is that Washington, D.C., has one of the biggest police departments in the country.
YOKUM: There's a lot of officers involved, so we're collecting a lot of data with 1,100 different cameras out on the street and then 1,100 officers that don't have cameras. And so just the numbers here are very large.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What's more, researcher Anita Ravishankar says they gathered data over seven months.
ANITA RAVISHANKAR: I think the timeline that we're able to implement this was a big thing for the department to be willing to do and a huge deal for us to be able to do this study well and correctly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: New York City's police department is conducting a similar study. Twelve-hundred officers in 20 precincts will get cameras. Over the next year, they'll be compared to officers who don't have them. Researchers hope all of this data will reveal the effects of cameras on everything from use of force to citizen complaints to rates of convictions. The first results from Washington, D.C., should be out in just a few weeks. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.