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$600K for Police Body Cameras in Rapid May Produce No Appreciable Results

Rapid City and Pennington County will spend $600,000 of taxpayer funds (half from us, half from the federal government) to equip city and county police with body cameras. What’s the point of this largest deployment of on-cop surveillance gear in South Dakota?

Lt. Mark Eisenbraun is with the Rapid City Police Department. He says video evidence is more powerful if an incident makes its way to court.

“The hope there is that this is one additional tool that police, law enforcement, can use to try and increase our effectiveness in prosecution and hopefully hold offenders accountable and protect victims,” Eisenbraun says [Lee Strubinger, “RCPD and PCSO to Implement Body Camera Program in January,” SDPB Radio, 2017.10.19].

Before Chief Jegeris and Sheriff Thom write those first checks to the camera manufacturers (whom they are keeping secret), they should check this new study from a Washington, D.C., city government research group that conducted a rigorous study of the use of body cameras in our nation’s capital and found no statistically significant impact on prosecutions, case disposition, officer discretion, civilian complaints, or documented use of force by police officers.

D.C. police expected different results:

That’s the conclusion of a study performed as Washington, D.C., rolled out its huge camera program. The city has one of the largest forces in the country, with some 2,600 officers now wearing  cameras on their collars or shirts.

“We found essentially that we could not detect any statistically significant effect of the body-worn cameras,” says Anita Ravishankar, a researcher with the Metropolitan Police Department and a group in the city government called the Lab @ DC.

“I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” says Chief of Police Peter Newsham. “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.”

Perhaps, he says, that is because his officers “were doing the right thing in the first place.”

In the wake of high-profile shootings, many police departments have been rapidly adopting body-worn cameras, despite a dearth of solid research on how the technology can change policing.

“We need science, rather than our speculations about it, to try to answer and understand what impacts the cameras are having,” says David Yokum, director of the Lab @ DC [Nell Greenfieldboyce, “Body Cam Study Shows No Effect on Police Use of Force or Citizen Complaints,” NPR: The Two-Way, 2017.10.20].

Think about it, Rapid City: you have $300,000 of your own money to spend on public safety. Are you sure you want to spend that money in an effort to get different results from the statistical shrug the D.C. evidence shows? Or might there be some other, less costly activities in which you could invest that money to improve law enforcement outcomes?

16 Comments

  1. mike from iowa 2017-10-20 14:24

    Has RC police been accused of excessive violence? That could be the real reason- protection from liability claims. Not long ago, Baltimore cops filmed themselves planting evidence twice.

  2. jerry 2017-10-20 14:51

    RC police generally just shoot you and call it justified.

  3. Roger Elgersma 2017-10-20 16:15

    do the criminals change when they see the camera?

  4. Darin Larson 2017-10-20 19:18

    Cory, the cameras should not change officer behavior. The officers should be doing their jobs according to proper procedures.

    The body cameras should be used for their evidentiary value, just like police car dash cams. They will provide evidence in the court room and in the court of public opinion.

    In the era of fake news and social media run amock, let’s go to the video tape.

  5. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-20 20:07

    Darin, that’s what the DC police chief suggested: the cameras didn’t change anything in DC because his officers are already well-trained and well-behaved. But this study also appears to question the evidentiary value, noting no changes in prosecutions or disposition of cases.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-20 20:07

    As for court of public opinion, Rapid City PD is saying it’s darned unlikely they’ll release any video to the public.

  7. mike from iowa 2017-10-20 20:08

    For that to work, Darin, them cameras need to be on at all times when the officer is on duty. Too many times already we have heard the officer forgets to have the camera on when questionable behavior may have taken place.

  8. Neal 2017-10-20 22:20

    Cory, any relevant video in a criminal case is required to be disclosed.

  9. CLCJM 2017-10-20 23:52

    Not sure what to think. We do know there is a lot of racism and racist behavior in SD. Is there any evidence that the officers of the RCPD have engaged in that behavior? The evidence sited here doesn’t indicate that cameras help with prosecution or convictions. Seems like a large cost for possibly negligible results.

  10. mike from iowa 2017-10-21 08:26

    As for court of public opinion, Rapid City PD is saying it’s darned unlikely they’ll release any video to the public.

    Sounds like a tacit confession that the police aren’t innocent parties already. Maybe they took an oath to Drumpf to rough up suspects.

    What do they have to hide? O’Keefe and dead Breitbart are likely on the Rapid City PD side.

  11. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-21 08:32

    Neal, I’d certainly like the videos to be public, but that openness is not the line RCPD is emphasizing:

    Don’t expect much, if anything, to be released to the public, though.

    While footage could be released to the parties involved a civil case, Clabo said that may be the extent of it.

    “Overall, most of them (video footage) will just be evidentiary purposes,” she said.

    In February, when the RCPD and PCSO originally asked the Rapid City Council for support in applying for the grant, Medina made clear releasing the video was unlikely.

    “As far as the public demanding access to this video, I don’t think this is going to be any different than with our in-car dash cams,” he said in an interview then. Images from dashboard cameras are almost never released to the public or news media; the videos are a public record in some other states [Smauel Blackstone, “Local Police to Get Body Cams Thanks to $300K Grant,” Rapid City Journal, 2017.10.19].

    Blackstone notes that SDCL 1-27-1.5 keeps investigation records confidential. We’ll struggle to get access to those videos just as Bob Mercer struggled to get Richard Benda’s death investigation records.

  12. Jeff Barth 2017-10-21 11:47

    I am not opposed to the cameras but the cost of the cameras is the tip of the cost iceberg. Copies of the video need to be made for defense attorneys, prosecutors and for the cops and judges. And those copies don’t just cover the 5 minutes in question but all the video taken.

    Our county has offices full of copying machines staffed by full time employees. Think of the effort to archive all that information! Those costs continue long after the grant money for the cameras fades into memory.

  13. mike from iowa 2017-10-21 12:24

    You’re in South Dakota, Mr Barth. What makes you think any grant money for cameras will be used to buy any cameras?

    All grant money earmarked for S Dakota needs to go into a clear, locked box so the people can admire it, but pols can’t touch it.

  14. Darin Larson 2017-10-21 12:26

    Jeff, I agree there are plenty of additional costs to consider in the use of body cameras. However, I would surmise that less cases will go to an expensive trial if the police have good video evidence. One big case going to trial costs the county a lot of money. Fewer defendants and their attorneys will “make up facts” when confronted by irrefutable video and audio evidence. When the facts are less in dispute, plea bargains will be even more common.

    In addition, the pursuit of justice is something that is hard to put a price on–from the perspective of the state, the community and the defendant.

  15. Jeff Barth 2017-10-21 12:57

    Darin,
    Agreed.

  16. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2017-10-21 18:37

    It’s hard to argue with the non-monetary value of justice.

    That said, I’d like to put this issue side by side withb Mark Mickelson’s call to repeal of the crime victims bill of rights. Mickelson says providing those victim services costs counties too much. Is Mickelson going to take the same position on body cameras? If body cameras don’t change police behavior or the outcome of prosecutions, are they providing any value for the money?

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