A report released by the San Diego Police Department shows its body-worn camera program is actually doing some good.
Since officers began wearing the cameras nearly three years ago, the department has seen significant decreases in misconduct allegations and high-level uses of force by officers.
A nine-page internal report also says the cameras have shrunk the number of allegations left unresolved due to lack of evidence, helped more officers get exonerated and increased the percentage of allegations deemed false.
The allegations are down because the misconduct is down. The department’s camera program began in 2013. Since then, it has expanded to cover every officer in the force. Three years later, the department has experienced a 43% drop in misconduct allegations. That’s the sort of thing that happens when most of your interactions are recorded.
In addition to better behavior by cops (and better behavior by citizens who know their words and actions are being recorded), there has been a drop in the use of severe force.
[H]igh-level use of force, such as physical takedowns and using Tasers, chemical agents or weapons, is down 16.4 percent.
On the other hand, lower-level uses of force have increased 23.5% over the same period. What could be taken as an indication of a partial accountability favor is more likely just a statistical adjustment. For one, the increase in real numbers is only 71 more force deployments than last year, which isn’t all that much when compared to the number of police interactions. According to SDPD numbers, officers responded to 520,000 incidents in 2016.
As for the uptick in lower-level force deployment — which is much more significant than the drop in higher-level force use — this is little more than a reflection of a positive change in tactics. In most arrests, some level of force is deployed. If San Diego cops are aware they’re being recorded, they’re less likely to deploy high-level force techniques as quickly as they would in pre-camera days. These numbers show there’s more de-escalation occurring, which naturally results in fewer deployments of high-level force. But since some force is still needed in many cases, the numbers have to go somewhere. And they’ve traveled from the high-level stats to the low-level.
This is backed up by officers’ statements detailed in the report:
This data is consistent with feedback received from officers indicating body worn cameras help de-escalate some situations, and results in the use of lesser controlling force to gain compliance without the need for greater controlling/defending force.
Also of note is the fact that the cameras have increased the number of sustained allegations. Last we checked, the SDPD had no disciplinary procedures in place for officers who fail to record interactions. But something must be going right (or have changed in the meantime) because there doesn’t appear to be (at this point) any evidence cameras are being disabled, being tampered with, or having critical recordings go missing.
Another thing that comes through is that SDPD brass appear to be taking this form of accountability very seriously. The department is already planning to upgrade its cameras, with an emphasis on capturing even more footage than it already does.
By April, the department plans to complete upgrading each of its nearly 1,200 body-worn cameras to newer models with superior video quality and the ability to store two minutes of footage before an officer hits “record” instead of the current 30 seconds.
Body cameras can’t fix bad policing if those up top don’t show their support for additional scrutiny and accountability. Fortunately for the citizens of San Diego, their police department actually seems to want this program to help it build better cops and a better relationship with the community they serve.