Research: Video Cameras Do Not Deter Police From Committing Excessive Force

A study by a USC professor refutes the assumption that law enforcement officers are less likely to use excessive force if they’re being recorded.

SACRAMENTO – Video cameras do not deter police officers from committing acts of excessive force and instead may actually promote more aggressive actions by officers, according to new research.

Between 2003 and 2010, Howard P. Greenwald, a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the Univ. of Southern California, analyzed data on almost 200,000 traffic stops by Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies, one of the largest studies of police video technology to date. During this period, high-resolution cameras were gradually installed in patrol cars, allowing Greenwald to compare their effect on deputies’ actions.

The intent of the research was to examine the assumption that officers will be less likely to use excessive force, either out of fear of punishment or of exposure to the community, if their actions are recorded on camera. The results of Greenwald’s research were published Monday (March 7) in the Sacramento Bee. Following is what Greenwald wrote about the results in the newspaper:

Overall, roughly 22% of drivers stopped were African American, more than twice their representation in the driving-age population of Sacramento County. Contrary to expectations, the presence of a video camera did not reduce the likelihood that African Americans would be pulled over.

What happens during a traffic stop can be more important than just being detained. A driver, for example, may perceive an officer’s request to search his person or car as an aggressive act. In the study, African American drivers had a 25% chance of being searched, compared with 18%  for whites – and the presence of a camera increased the chances of a search for blacks.

The length of a traffic stop can also be a measure of officer intrusiveness. About 15% of stops I studied lasted 30 minutes or longer. In stops that were videotaped, 14% of African American drivers were detained for 30 minutes or longer, compared to 10.5% of white drivers.

A smaller study in collaboration with the Sacramento Police Department produced similar findings. Of the stops made by officers without cameras in their vehicles, 23% were of African Americans. Among stops made by officers with cameras, 31% were of African Americans.

The reasons why Sacramento officers under video surveillance continued to stop a higher percentage of African American drivers and subjected them to more intrusive procedures aren’t clear. What’s clearer is that video cameras are not a panacea for potentially biased policing, though they can play an important role in prosecuting police violence.

Reducing conflict between police and communities will require something more than cameras – trust and collaboration. Toward this end, police departments in Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere have launched mediation programs that put community members and officers face to face to discuss complaints. These programs may not always result in agreements or handshakes, but the human contact they encourage can contribute more to a solution than video surveillance.

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