Policing has become a hot issue in recent years thanks to the efforts of groups like Black Lives Matter bringing discriminatory actions by the police to light. In many jurisdictions police forces are already using (or considering) body cameras that record what officers are seeing and doing. It turns out that using them can decrease complaints about police behaviour by 93% – even if the police aren’t using them all the time.
“It may be that, by repeated exposure to the surveillance of the cameras, officers changed their reactive behaviour on the streets — changes that proved more effective and so stuck,” explained the study’s lead author, Barak Ariel, in a Cambridge news release. “With a complaints reduction of nearly 100 percent across the board, we find it difficult to consider alternatives, to be honest.”
The researchers dub this effect “contagious accountability” — learning to do the right thing even when no one is watching.
Specifics on how exactly this is happening are unclear. Is the officer less confrontational to begin with, avoiding escalation? Or are suspects and complainants more wary of their conduct? Is it some combination of the two, or are even more factors involved? To determine these things would be a far more complex and subtle piece of research, but the study does suggest that officer behavior is probably the most affected, and that other effects flow from that.