Do Body Cameras Force Police To Make More Drug Arrests?

By Paul Gaita 08/07/19

Officers who do not make arrests in possession cases may face disciplinary action for not carrying out the requirements of their jobs.

police officers wearing body cameras
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An editorial on Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy blog examined the possibility of a causal relationship between the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) by law enforcement officers and arrests for drug possession.

The editorial's authors noted that while BWCs have been employed across the country to serve as monitors for police behavior, they may also have an unintended secondary effect in drug cases: officers who do not make arrests in possession cases may face disciplinary action for not carrying out the requirements of their jobs.

The authors suggest that more extensive research is required to determine exactly how BWCs affect police behavior, as well as more immediate fixes to departmental policy that could assist in their proper use.

More Body Cameras, Fewer Incidents

As the New York Times and other data sources have noted, the use of BWCs by police departments in the United States has increased over the past decade as a means of garnering greater public trust in the wake of shooting incidents involving law enforcement and unarmed individuals, primarily people of color.

A national survey in 2015 found that 95% of larger-sized police departments had either adopted their use or had committed to doing so in the immediate future.

But studies offer conflicting evidence as to whether their use has a positive effect on both police officers and the public. The Times cited a 2012 experiment in Rialto, California, which found that officers using cameras reported half as many incidents in which force was used while interacting with individuals, and the number of complaints against officers dropped by 90%.

But the experiment was also referenced within the context of a larger article about 2017 research, conducted on a much larger scale in Washington, D.C., which found that officers with BWCs appeared to use the same amount of force and yielded the same number of complaints as those that did not wear them.

According to the editorial's authors, no studies currently exist which look at whether officers with BWCs make more drug arrests than those without the devices. They instead rely on conversations with officers, some of whom reportedly stated that the cameras—and the knowledge that their superiors would review the footage—made them feel pressured to conduct arrests on cases like drug possession, which they said would have been overlooked with a warning and disposal of the drugs in question.

Feeling Pressured

The presence of the cameras, however, reportedly made some officers feel that their jobs were on the line if department policy was not followed and arrests not carried out.

As one officer told the authors, "You make a traffic stop, and maybe someone has some crack on them that you see in the car but they aren't under the influence. Maybe you let that person go. But now, if the crack is seen on the body cam, then you have to make that arrest because you could be disciplined or even lose your job if you don't."

To alleviate officers' concerns, the authors suggested that police departments grant officers the discretion to decline arrests in low-level drug possession cases, and cited diversion programs that allow officers to direct offenders towards treatment and other community programs.

The editorial concludes with the authors' request for additional research on body cameras' influence on officer responses, which police departments could use to make more informed decisions on policy. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.