Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Education

USF to study police officers wearing body cameras

In Arizona, a suicidal man with a gun stood at the edge of a swimming pool. Officers shot him with a Taser, then dove into the pool to pull him out.

In Maryland, a woman reached into her glove box, pulled out a gun, then sped off. She crashed and ran off down the sidewalk.

And in Daytona Beach, former NFL prospect Jermaine Green held a knife to his girlfriend's chest and started to stab her. Officers shot him six times.

It was all caught on camera.

In this smartphone era, anyone can record anything at any time. Yet for police officers, none of those moments would have been caught in such gripping detail if officers weren't wearing body cameras on the job.

The tiny cameras worn on sunglasses, collars and caps are taking root at police departments across the country. And aside from providing salacious footage, researchers at the University of South Florida are hoping to see if they serve a bigger purpose or present unforeseen problems.

USF's Department of Criminology has teamed with the Orlando Police Department on a yearlong study of body cameras. The department is considering adding the equipment to its arsenal. But before investing in cameras that can cost $200 to $400 a piece, Chief Paul Rooney wanted more information on pros and cons.

"A lot of departments are moving toward body-worn cameras," said Lorie Fridell, associate professor and graduate director in criminology at USF. "There are a number of what I'll call hypotheses about what good they might produce, but there's limited empirical testing."

The USF study, starting early this year, will evaluate 100 officers' interactions with people during normal work days. Fifty officers will wear the cameras. The other 50 will not. The officers will be closely matched, Fridell said — for example, an officer who works Monday mornings won't be compared to one who works Saturday nights.

Taser International, a maker of body cameras, is providing the cameras to the department.

Taser is interested in more independent research to back up what many think to be true: When people know they're being filmed, they behave differently. And when they know there's footage of the truth, they won't lie.

"All of us are a little more circumspect in our behavior when the camera is on," said Fridell.

Three USF researchers, Fridell, associate professor Wesley Jennings and graduate student Matthew Lynch, will evaluate the findings, comparing the two groups of officers.

They'll examine the number of incidents and complaints involving force. They'll note whether injuries go down.

They'll gauge attitudes toward cameras from both the officers and the people they're interacting with. Are people less likely to approach an officer with a camera? Do officers think they're easy to use?

And they'll look at internal complaints based on spot footage reviews, much like random drug tests.

"If you really want to make cameras a strong accountability mechanism, you want the supervisors to review random film and let the officers know," said Fridell. "That makes the film more powerful in terms of promotion and good behavior."

The Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge led a body camera study in 2012 with California's Rialto Police Department, using a smaller sample size of officers than USF is using. In that department, complaints against officers dropped by 88 percent. And officers wearing cameras used force almost 60 percent less.

In Tampa Bay, no major agency has started using body cameras, but spokespeople for both the Clearwater Police Department and the Tampa Police Department said the idea is being explored.

"We have no plans in the budget to purchase any body cameras," said TPD spokeswoman Andrea Davis. "But we do think it's a great tool and we have recently started researching the body cams to see if it's something that we might be able to incorporate in the future."

Taser introduced cameras built into the butt of its electroshock weapons in 2006. But that only recorded when the Taser was used, and didn't account for batons, or pepper spray, or guns or anything else. So Taser decided to create a separate camera, one that attached to sunglasses. It had a GPS device. It had playback abilities. It had wires.

"We overdid it," said company spokesman Steve Tuttle. "We made a Ferrari. The three biggest complaints were size, wires and comfort."

Since then, the company has streamlined the cameras to make them less cumbersome, mountable on anything from ski masks to epaulets. As the equipment improves, Tuttle said, more and more police chiefs are coming around to the idea.

"Three years ago, we were asking chiefs, 'What do you think about video?' They said, 'We're not ready yet.' Now, the acceptance is extremely fast."

Taser body cameras have made their way into forces in Sanford, Albuquerque, N.M., Salt Lake City and Greensboro, N.C., where a young girl standing on a back porch was caught on camera hurling a knife at an officer.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.

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