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UNM to research effects of body-worn cameras on officer behavior

A 2020 law required state, county and city law enforcement in New Mexico to always use body cameras and retain the footage. A bill approved unanimously by the Senate Wednesday would create more leniency around the rule, along with all out exceptions to it.
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Researchers from the University of New Mexico and Purdue University are now studying the psychological effects of body-worn cameras on police officers thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation.

Researchers at Purdue University and the University of New Mexico have joined forces to study how body-worn cameras affect officer behavior when interacting with the public.

Often referred to as the “Observer effect,” the thought is that the mere presence of a camera cuts back on aggressive police interactions when everything is up for public inspection.

KUNM sat down with UNM researcher Daniel Ravid to talk about it.

DANIEL RAVID: The point of this grant is to better understand the individual and organizational and environmental community variables that might predict the effects of body-worn cameras on officer perceptions and behaviors.

KUNM: Why should we spend the time and money looking at police behavior? Especially when research seems to be pretty mixed overall in the tech's effectiveness. For example, research from the University of Chicagopoints to only a 10% decrease in officer use of force cases when they use body-worn cameras.  

RAVID: A great observation. And like you say, the evidence for the effectiveness and effects of body worn-cameras are really mixed. In some studies, you see that they do reduce use of force, you see that police officers really support their use. In other studies, you see that they don't reduce force or that police officers feel burnt out or stressed because of them. And that's exactly the reason why more research is needed. Because what we're looking for is to better understand the contexts and variables that lead to these different findings. It's not random. There's certain reasons why, under some circumstances, they might be more effective than others. The whole point of this study is to uncover those contexts and those effects. Better understand how a community's relationship with their police department might actually affect how officers understand these cameras and respond to them.

KUNM: Well, New Mexico is home to about 2.1 million people. And it has one of the highest rates of police killings per capita in the country. That's according to reporting from NPR. In fact, in 2022, the data shows 32 people that's around 15 people per million were killed by police in the state. How do you see your research influencing troubled trends like this one in our state?

RAVID: Yeah, so under the best circumstances, body-worn cameras that police officers wear can be pretty effective in multiple ways. One would just be that transparency element, where officers and organizations and the community are all held accountable for these police-community member interactions. Also, police body-worn cameras can be used for training and development. We spoke to one police agency that said when they first implemented these cameras, one of the first things they noticed was that their officers were using a variety of different handcuffing techniques. Handcuffing is one of the quickest ways to de-escalate a situation. And if you are not handcuffing effectively, that can actually lead to more escalation and use of force. So that police department noticed because of body-worn cameras that their officers were using ineffective or different methods for handcuffing, and then quickly implemented a training program to make sure that their officers were trained in the correct handcuffing techniques and then provide feedback to officers on those techniques. And they saw a quick reduction in ineffective handcuffing.

There's all these benefits to these technologies that go beyond just surveilling officers or surveilling the community. But, it depends on if these technologies are used effectively. If officers feel supported by the technologies, and hopefully help police departments and provide them the data that says, under certain circumstances, this might be the best way to use these cameras.

KUNM: What about other factors that might be out of your control?

RAVID: There are almost an infinite amount of variables that are going to impact how a police officer behaves, how a police officer perceives these cameras, how a community relates to police officers, and we're not going to be able to explain all the answers in the study. If we can increase the knowledge a bit and make it more likely that police officers and community members have a good relationship and that they interact in positive ways, then we've done our job. In terms of organizational policies, like use of force, we are interviewing police captains and police chiefs to better understand the organizational policies at the specific police organizations that we are working with –to better understand that context and hopefully, again, look for associations between certain policies and body-worn camera outcomes.

Bryce Dix is our local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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