Preventing Police Brutality with Body Cam Footage and Early Warning Systems

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In this special guest feature, Dr. Anirudh Ruhil, Leadership and Public Affairs Director and Professor in the online Master of Public Administration program at Ohio University, discusses how data can be better utilized for public safety, and how it might be used to combat police brutality. Dr. Ruhil refers to himself as a social scientist who believes in the power of data analytics to improve programs and policies in the public sector. Ruhil says the use of data to answer practical questions serves citizens better and leads to better overall outcomes. He notes this practice is more prevalent in the private sector than the public sector, and hence there is a gap that needs to be filled. Ruhil is an expert in big data, city politics, and policy and data analytics. He’s focusing on evaluations of value-added pilot programs in Ohio and evaluating value-added data and the new teacher and principal accountability systems that use this.

Ever since the death of George Floyd and the ensuing civil unrest, one of the ongoing debates has been over the various roles that data can potentially play in addressing the problem of police brutality. There are numerous ways that data is already employed in this manner by both civilians and law enforcement. Mapping Police Violence, for example, is a civilian-run website that seeks to document the scope of the problem by aggregating data from three crowdsourced databases on police misconduct. The Washington Post also founded a database in 2014 which was designed with the same objective. However, data can do more than help the public understand the reality and scope of the problem. It can help prevent or reduce the problem in the first place.

CompStat and Police Misconduct in High Crime Areas

Of course, data systems are already used within law enforcement as well by civilians, but they are not designed to prevent police misconduct. They are designed to help the police do their jobs. Perhaps the most prominent example is CompStat which was created in New York City during the mid-90s and since then has been adopted by police departments across the country. CompStat was originally a statistical data and crime mapping system intended to help police reduce crime through a data sharing system which identified neighborhood hotspots where clusters of crimes were occurring. While CompStat has helped NYC reduce its crime by 75%, it is not without its problems and controversies. Because CompStat is used to evaluate performance, there is a considerable incentive to abuse and manipulate the system in an effort to boost performance measures. This has particularly been harmful to communities of colors which to this day suffer the consequences of this misuse.

The aforementioned use of data by law enforcement is largely a reactive one in which data is collected and analyzed after crimes have occurred. What we will hopefully see more of in the future is the integration of more preventative and proactive uses of data systems designed to prevent adverse events from occurring in the first place. Whereas with current crime mapping systems the objects of interest are the neighborhoods and civilians, with the kind of preventative data system I am speaking of, law enforcement officers themselves would be the objects of interest. The idea is that over the course of a police officer’s service, any and all notable incidents should be documented, compiled, and analyzed with the goal of providing an early warning and intervention system for officers who are at risk of misconduct.

The Limitations of Current Early Warning Systems

Early warning systems (EWSs) for law enforcement already exist to varying degrees, though research so far shows mixed results as to their effectiveness. This is partially due to the risk indicators that are typically used to flag at-risk officers. Such indicators include complaints from civilians, documented incidents of use of force, and sick time. However, research thus far has not shown these indicators to be particularly effective at identifying at-risk officers. Take formal complaints, for example. A very high percentage of people in high-crime, low-income communities have negative perceptions of the police, and those who distrust the police are unlikely to contact the police to file a complaint because they feel that the results (or lack thereof) are not worth the effort. This makes formal complaints a skewed and inaccurate indicator of risk.

How Body Cam Footage Can Make an EWS More Effective

This is where body cam footage can provide an additional source of data to make early warning systems more accurate and effective. Body cams, when they are worn, in themselves already reduce the use of force by police officers, but they can be doubly preventative by also capturing data that can be used to better identify at-risk officers via behavioral indicators of stress and burnout. Various measures could then be used to prevent police misconduct such as temporarily assigning officers to parking detail or desk work, and providing them with counseling and other helpful resources until psych evaluations show that they are ready to return to regular duty.    

A data system like this can go beyond punitive or disciplinary purposes and serve developmental objectives as well. For instance, body cams can capture subtle data that would otherwise be easily overlooked yet point to potential problem areas. such as the language used by police officers towards White and Black civilians, respectively. One study that examined body cam footage, for example, discovered that officers consistently used less respectful language when addressing Black citizens than when addressing White ones. Additional training could address disparities like these before and help prevent the buildup of tensions between police and the communities they serve. It would be a win-win situation in which everyone benefits: civilians, local government, and the police themselves.

Addressing the Risks

Using data in this way would not be completely risk free. However, rather than the kind of misuse and data manipulation that occurs with crime mapping, the kind of risk here would more likely be of a security-related nature. In 2019, for instance, the LAPD suffered a data breach that involved the sensitive information of thousands of police officers. More recently, a whistleblower and activist group known as Distributed Denial of Secrets (DDoSecrets) leaked 269 GB of sensitive data from over 200 police departments in another breach now known as BlueLeaks. This time 700,000 officers were affected. The point here is simply that when it comes to data, breaches are always a hypothetical possibility. With good teams of data security architects, however, such risks can be minimized.

The Key to Successful Implementation 

Finally, with any data-driven system designed to mitigate police misconduct, be it CompStat or the kind of early warning system that I’ve discussed in this article, the most advanced and sophisticated data system will not do any good unless it is monitored and enforced—fairly, frequently, and consistently. Body cams, once again, are a prime example of this. They cannot achieve their intended goals of increased police accountability and the repair of public trust if, for instance, they are not even turned on. At present the usefulness of body cams is limited because the police have control over the footage and even when to turn the cameras on. The public also has limited power to access body cam footage if the police, for whatever reason, do not wish to release it. Data from body cams should therefore be fed to not just police precincts but to neutral, bipartisan third parties, and it should be accessed during any judicial review or misconduct review process.

Certainly, eradicating police brutality will require a long-term, comprehensive approach in which education, awareness, and training must all play central roles. But in the meantime early intervention systems that incorporate body cam footage, with third party monitoring, can go a long way towards reducing incidents of police misconduct. And that in turn will help repair the rift between police departments and the communities they serve.

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