By Linda Bentley | NOVEMBER 18, 2015

Legislature studies law enforcement body camera use

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PHOENIX – On Nov. 5, the Arizona State Legislature held the second in a series of study committee meetings to learn more about law enforcement’s use and the effectiveness of body cameras.

Jacob Young, assistant professor in the ASU School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, provided the findings from a Mesa Police Department field experiment on officer use of body cameras.

According to the study, there was 87 percent bipartisan support for more police officers wearing on-officer video cameras (OVCs) to record interactions.

The OVCs are expected to increase transparency and improve views of police legitimacy, have a “civilizing” effect that would improve citizen-officer relations, have evidentiary benefits and improve officer training.

However, there is little available research on the technology and most of the claims made by advocates and critics remain untested.

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Dist. 23, who chaired the meeting, calls the use of OVCs a double-edged sword.

The 10-month field study was initiated in November 2012 by the Mesa Police Department to evaluate the Axon Flex OVC system.

The department was interested in learning how the technology influenced police-citizen interactions and officers’ perceptions of the cameras.

The study involved 100 officers, 50 of which received cameras (Treatment Group) and 50 that did not receive cameras (Comparison Group).

Of the 50 that received the cameras, half were compulsory assignments while half were voluntary.

During the first five months of the study, officers were directed, “When practical, officers will make every effort to activate the on-officer body camera when responding to a call or have any contact with the public.”

After the first five months officers were allowed to “exercise discretion and activate the on-officer body camera when they deem it appropriate.”

Data was amassed from over 3,600 field contact forms collected that were completed by officers on 160 randomly selected days.

Looking at officer behavior, the study found 41.5 percent of those in the Treatment Group issued citations, while those in the Comparison Group only issued citations 18.4 percent of the time.

Kavanagh wondered if the cameras didn’t keep officers from using more discretion, for example, allowing a young person caught with a marijuana cigarette to flush it down the toilet instead of being cited.

The Treatment Group conducted a “stop and frisk” only 7.3 percent of the time while the Comparison Group conducted them 17.1 percent of the time.

Approximately 20 percent more of the contacts by the Treatment Group were officer-initiated encounters than the Comparison Group.

Of the Treatment Group, 38.1 percent found the cameras to be useful, while only 12.9 percent of the Comparison Group thought cameras would have been useful.

What the department found was there was no difference between “volunteer assignment” and “compulsory assignment” in camera activation during the mandatory activation period.

However, during the discretionary period, the study found a significant decline, primarily among “compulsory assignment” officers, who were three times more likely to stop activating their cameras than the volunteer group when the policy switched to discretionary activation.

Key findings of the study included: more research is needed, officer behavior and view of technology is influenced by wearing a camera and, department policy may determine the effectiveness of the technology for achieving goals.

A representative from the Lake Havasu City Police Department said cameras were being issued to every new recruit that comes out of the police academy, so it’s part of their training right from the gate.

Because cameras can be placed on the head, glasses, hat, belt, shoulder or chest, Kavanagh questioned police departments’ preferences.

Representatives from Phoenix Police Department indicated the ones that can be mounted to glasses were effective but the cameras they use can only be mounted to certain brands, such as Oakley, and that was problematic.

He said officers place them on their chest.

Kavanagh said he’s heard cameras can be blocked when officers lift their arms to shoot.

The Phoenix police sergeant indicated it depends on the officer’s shooting stance but reminded Kavanagh the camera is recording audio as well.

Other issues Kavanagh raised included the use of high definition and night vision cameras that could potentially pick up things the officer could not physically see.

Kavanagh stated, “If those things were of legal consequence, the public and jurors might erroneously believe that the officer saw those things, which would impeach the officer’s credibility and possibly expose the officer to undeserved criminal and civil liability and his or her department to undeserved civil liability.”

While the higher quality could potentially reveal what really happened, he said that’s not an issue in use of force and arrest decisions, where it is what the parties “reasonably believe” is happening that matters.

None of the police departments participating in the meeting use high definition or night vision cameras.

The study committee questioned whether or not officers should be able to view the video in the field at the scene of an incident.

The Lake Havasu City representative said their cameras have that capability. He said they are pretty much just like cell phones without the phone capability.

The committee questioned who should wear a camera and wondered if it should be extended to special units, detectives, undercover officers and civilian employees.

Because there is a cost associated with the use of cameras, every agency has been adopting its own policies for their use.

The study committee will be holding its next meeting, which is open to the public, at 1:30 p.m. this Thursday, Nov. 19 in Senate Hearing Room 109 in the Senate building at the Arizona State Capitol.