TAMPA — Police officers may be better at their jobs when the public is watching.
That's what University of South Florida researchers recently concluded after spending a year studying Orlando Police Department officers who wore body cameras — and recorded their interactions with the public — versus officers who did not.
In that year, there was a 65 percent drop in complaints against officers who wore the cameras, according to the study, and a 53 percent reduction in incidents that required those officers to use force — also known as "response to resistance" incidents.
"Your perceived likelihood of wearing this camera makes you behave more by the book," said USF criminology professor Wesley Jennings. "Everybody, officers included, tend to toe the line a little better when they know they're being videotaped."
The study started in March 2014 when 46 officers were given body cameras to wear on duty. Researchers also studied 43 officers who didn't get cameras. The study's conclusions were based on police records, officer surveys and interviews with both sets of the officers.
Even though the study is over, all of the officers who wore body cameras decided to keep using them, said police spokeswoman Michelle Guido. Now their fellow officers want the cameras, too.
"We have a waiting list," Guido said. "Because they've heard their colleagues talk about how they've come in handy. People are always asking about it."
She said the Orlando Police Department also believes that body cameras will weed out illegitimate complaints so the agency can focus on addressing serious complaints against officers.
Police commanders were so pleased with the experiment that they've decided to equip the entire Orlando force with body cameras. In September, the department was awarded $497,480 from the U.S. Department of Justice to help buy 450 body cameras over the next three years.
Police accountability has become a national issue since USF started its Orlando study. But that's not what spurred the study. Researchers said they launched the study to get a better idea of how these officers — and citizens — act when they know everyone is watching.
Michelle Richardson, director of public policy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said the study's findings were encouraging.
"It has a calming effect on everyone involved when they realize their behavior is being memorialized for all to see," she said.
At first, Jennings said, officers were skeptical that wearing body cameras would help them do their jobs better or have any kind of impact at all.
Eventually, whether officers realized it or not, body cameras made them more aware of their actions and those they interacted with, the USF professor said.
By the end of the study, about 75 percent of the Orlando police officers who wore the cameras said they should be adopted by the rest of the agency. That's exactly what the department plans to do.
"(The cameras) will also improve accountability and transparency, protect our officers from false complaints, and provide valuable evidence for prosecutors," Orlando police Chief John Mina said in a statement.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Michael Majchrowicz at (813) 226-3374 or [email protected] Follow @mjmajchrowicz.