Study: Body cameras didn’t reduce use of force for Tempe patrol officers

By: - July 8, 2020 8:31 am

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A study of the Tempe Police Department found that body-worn cameras did not decrease the use of force among regular patrol officers, but did have an effect among the agency’s specialized units. 

“We demonstrate that, in the Tempe Police Department, use of force is concentrated among specialty units, and BWCs (body worn cameras) have the potential to generate a differential effect on use of force at the group level,” the study says. 

Researchers at Arizona State University, University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte spent four years analyzing use of force data collected from groups of officers as Tempe implemented its body-camera program to compare how patrol and specialized units such as K9, SWAT, bike patrol and others used force. 

The study is one of the first of its kind to examine this particular relationship. 

Multiple studies have been conducted that examine the potential impact body-worn cameras have had on police departments, some with varying degrees of results

The specialized units that were part of the study included the bike unit, K9 unit, Tactical Response Unit, gang unit, mounted unit and traffic unit. 

For a two-year period, researchers collected administrative data on use of force, calls for service and weekly assignment rosters for one year prior to the implementation of body-worn cameras at the Tempe Police Department. Researchers created monthly use of force rates for each officer in the study then compared that to the data collected on the officers after the implementation of body-worn cameras. 

Among the police officers are part of the specialty units—a figure that ranged between 48 and 64 officers during the study—the study found that use of force happened almost 300% more than with patrol officers. 

“[U]se of force rates among officers assigned to specialty units were nearly four times greater than those of officers assigned to general patrol units, and this finding was statistically significant over the entire study period,” the study said. 

Researchers also found that officers in the specialty units were the only officers to see a steady and permanent decline in use of force once body-worn cameras were implemented. 

Researchers noted that these units often are dealing with higher risk situations than patrol officers, which could account for their higher rates of use of force. The study did not go into detail on individual use of force reports.

“[W]e find that officers in specialty units consistently use force at a higher rate than patrol officers,” the study said. “This suggests that significantly more attention should be paid to the behaviors of police specialty units.” 

“Given the current focus placed on police use of force and public unrest concerning its perceived excessive use against minorities, the dearth of research addressing coercive behaviors used by specialty units who respond to high-risk calls for service is surprising,” the study said. 

Researchers also concluded that their findings should guide police departments on crafting specific policy, such as hiring and training. 

“[O]fficers in these units should receive more training opportunities related to the challenges they face, such as handling mentally ill individuals and verbal violence de-escalation,” the study said. “These units may also require a more nuanced use of force policy that acknowledges the nature of their work.” 

Further research is needed on how individual call types impact use of force and their relation to body-worn cameras, researchers noted. 

“Future research should investigate how situation factors — such as call type, suspect resistance, and arrest information — differentially affect use of force at a unit level,” the study said. “This would be a particularly fruitful avenue of research using (body-worn camera) footage as the data source.” 

The Tempe Police Department said the agency “consistently evaluates policies and procedures including those pertaining to equipment such as Body Worn Camera,” according to spokesman Det. Greg Bacon. 

“All officers, including those in specialty assignments, are equipped with BWC and are expected to follow the policies and procedures pertaining to the appropriate use of BWC,” Bacon said when asked if the report had affected TPD policy at all, noting the agency’s existing body-worn camera policy.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.