Soapbox

Cameras aren’t a guarantee against police excessive force

In this Oct. 20, 2014, frame from dashcam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times, was charged with first-degree murder last November.
In this Oct. 20, 2014, frame from dashcam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald, right, walks down the street moments before being shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times, was charged with first-degree murder last November. Chicago Police Department file

Law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are looking to video cameras to deter misconduct by officers after the widely reported cases of excessive force against African Americans.

The reasoning: 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.

But research I conducted in collaboration with Sacramento law enforcement agencies contradicts this assumption. Worse, my research shows that video surveillance may actually promote more aggressive actions by officers, and increase the risks faced by African Americans.

Between 2003 and 2010, I 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 me to compare their effect on deputies’ actions.

Overall, roughly 22 percent 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 percent chance of being searched, compared with 18 percent 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 percent of stops I studied lasted 30 minutes or longer. In stops that were videotaped, 14 percent of African American drivers were detained for 30 minutes or longer, compared to 10.5 percent 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 percent were of African Americans. Among stops made by officers with cameras, 31 percent 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.

Howard P. Greenwald is a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. He can be contacted at greenwa@usc.edu.

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