People often act differently when they know they are being watched. In fact, research shows that people act differently if they just feel like they are being watch. It's true. A 2010 study found that the mere presence of posters featuring a pair of eyes made it more likely that people would discard their litter in a self-clearing cafeteria.
This phenomenon is often referred to as the Hawthorne or Observer Effect, and it is a primary justification for the use of Body-Worn Cameras (BWCs) by police. Though there is little direct research, a study conducted by the Rialto (California) Police Department suggests that BWCs can have a positive effect on police behavior.
All of Rialto's frontline officers participated in the 12-month study. Nine of the 19 weekly shifts were randomly assigned to wear highly-visible BWCs that captured all police-public encounters. Each shift consisted of approximately 10 armed patrol officers who interact with offenders, victims, witnesses and other members of the public. The study produced some promising results.
- Shifts without BWCs had twice as many Use-of-Force incidents as shifts with BWCs.
- During the study, 17 of the 25 Use-of-Force incidents involved officers without BWCs.
- There was an overall reduction from 28 complaints lodged against officers in the 12 months before the study to 3 complaints during the study.
- Every Use-of-Force incident captured by a BWC involved a subject that was physically abusive or physically resisting arrest.
- In nearly a third of incidents (5 out of 17), officers without BWCs resorted to Use-of-Force without being physically threatened.
- In every Use-of-Force incident recorded by a BWC, physical contact was initiated by the subject.
- Officers without BWCs initiated physical contact in nearly a quarter of incidents involving Use-of-Force (4 out of 17).
Though these results appear promising, it's important to remember that this is a single study by a relatively small police department. Though additional research is needed, some believe these results prove that BWCs improve police behavior. Do you?
Before answering, consider another possibility suggested by the study's author: Do BWCs improve the behavior of police or those with whom they interact, who also know they are being observed? While there is no certain answer to this question, it is certainly likely that both the police and the citizens policed modify their behaviors when being watched. The more eyeballs, electronic or otherwise, on the streets, the better.