Violent crime in America leaves a growing body count in its wake. Authorities disagree over whether the trend is simply statistical noise or a predictable result of relaxed policing in the wake of several explosive policing incidents. But one promising strategy for stemming the violence attributed to overzealous law enforcement is a disappointment — the use of body cameras to accurately capture conflicts between cops and citizens. The cameras might even be making things worse.
Police departments across the nation have equipped officers with body cameras to mitigate the impact of cellphone recordings of street altercations that suggest police abuse and brutality, and a recent study indicates that the body cameras have increased the number of assaults on policemen. Findings by researchers at Cambridge University in Britain and Rand Corp. in Europe demonstrate that cops with body cameras suffered a 15 percent increase in assaults. The results were collected from 10 police departments of cities of at least 2 million persons in the United States and Britain, representing 2.2 million officer-hours of duty.
The researchers observed, however, that while some departments reported an increase in assaults, others didn’t, which was “puzzling and disturbing.” How the cameras are used could explain some of the difference. “The causal mechanism for this increase [in assaults] is not clear,” researchers said, “but we speculate that the selective activation of cameras by police is a corollary to situations that are already escalating in aggression.” All told, the study surmised that some suspects take offense when an officer activates his camera. Everybody wants to be on camera.
Supplying cops with body cameras has not altered the fact that America is becoming more violent. The Washington Times reports that data released last week by the Major Cities Chiefs Association showed 30 of 63 reporting police departments registering 1,365 murders — an average increase of 8 percent during the first three months of 2016 over the same period last year. In addition, the association tabulated an additional 260 rapes, 837 robberies, 3,132 violent assaults and 818 nonfatal shootings.
It’s tempting to attribute the rash of violence to the “Ferguson effect.” Much has been read into the supposed hesitancy of police to take a preventive approach and shrink from confrontation lest they provoke backlash, like that in the Missouri town of Ferguson following the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in 2014. FBI Director James Comey suggests that relaxed policing to avoid the “viral video” phenomenon explains the spike in violent crime.
Cameras can lie. In a recent demonstration, what appeared to be a slugfest between two men when recorded from a chest-mounted camera’s angle, was revealed to be simply two actors swinging their arms harmlessly in unison. Stemming the rise in the nation’s violence isn’t simply a matter of better surveillance but rather a renewed respect for the rule of law. Encouraging this respect is not solely the job of the cop on the beat, but the job of the community he serves.