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?