After New York City police officers started wearing body cameras during their patrols in public housing in 2018, they had more civil interactions with community members and made fewer arrests, according to a new report.
The data analysis, released this week by a team of federal monitors that has been keeping an eye on the NYPD for years, examined the effect of body cameras on police behavior. It tracked officer stops, searches, and arrests before, during, and after officers were equipped with cameras. It also looked at their impact on the number of complaints filed against police.
The report found that complaints against police decreased when officers started wearing cameras. So did some types of police activity that often lead to complaints, like searches. Body cameras, the monitors wrote, can help the NYPD “progress toward ensuring constitutional policing.”
The main takeaways:
While the NYPD monitors’ report is based on data from a short time period, it does highlight several positive trends following the department’s deployment of body cameras:
- Monthly Civilian Complaint Review Board allegations filed against Housing Bureau officers dropped by more than 40% after they were equipped with body cameras.
- Use of force during arrests decreased, as did arrests overall.
- Officers wearing body cameras were less likely to search or arrest people they stopped.
- Officers submitted more paperwork documenting stops that may not have been reported otherwise.
- Officers spent less time patrolling inside housing buildings, with interior patrols falling by 30%.
But some experts think more research is needed to determine whether body cameras will improve policing in the long term.
“I think it’s too early,” said Charles McLaurin, senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which sued the NYPD over its unconstitutional policing practices in public housing. Regular reports from the federal monitors are part of a settlement agreement from that suit and others filed against the department.
Maki Haberfeld, who spent decades in law enforcement and now teaches police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said it’s “absolutely too soon to say” whether body cameras have been a success – in public housing or elsewhere. She thinks researchers will need at least 10 years of data to assess their effectiveness.
“When officers are initially equipped with body-worn cameras, there’s this level of hesitation, there’s the level of fear, there’s the level of, ‘How do I perform?’” she said, adding, “people get used to new equipment, and then sometimes they revert to old types of behavior.”
A small group of NYPD officers started wearing body cameras following a 2013 court order in the landmark Floyd v. City of New York stop-and-frisk case. The department fully implemented its body-worn camera program starting in 2017. Nearly a decade later, the cameras have captured protests and police violence. They have cleared up questions in some cases and created more confusion in others.
By 2016, a survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found almost half of law enforcement agencies across the country had equipped their officers with cameras. But the early research on their effectiveness is mixed.
Studies have revealed some promising results, including decreases in police use of force and civilian complaints, as well as increases in arrests and criminal charges for domestic violence incidents. A 2019 meta-analysis of 70 studies, on the other hand, found no statistically significant effects on officer behavior or people’s perceptions of police. Body cameras, the authors wrote, “will not be an easy panacea for improving police performance, accountability, and relationships with citizens.”
Police reform advocates have touted body cameras as a tool to increase transparency, by showing what happens during police encounters, instead of relying on officer and witness accounts, which can be inconsistent or even untruthful.
“The implementation of body-worn cameras can be an extremely important mechanism for increasing transparency and building trust between the communities and law enforcement,” McLaurin said. “It just provides this visual documentation of interactions between officers and civilians, and I think it also puts a lot of pressure on responding officers to comply with their internal procedures and policies.”
One negative finding from the report: with more documentation of police activity, the monitors found more illegal frisks and searches. The monitors estimated that about 70% of frisks and searches by officers wearing cameras were lawful, compared to about 78% before.
An NYPD spokesperson called the report “very positive” overall and said the department “has been very proactive in the area of continuous improvement.”