Statement: “In the discussions that we’re having with other police agencies, those that have the cameras are finding that in some cases complaints against officers have dropped by 80 percent,” Shelley Zimmerman, San Diego police chief, said in an interview March 19.
Analysis: To address officer misconduct allegations and racial profiling concerns, San Diego police want to make a number of reforms. The most visible one is outfitting nearly 1,000 SDPD patrol officers with body cameras to record their interactions with citizens.
Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman went to sell the camera plan, which could cost $2 million, to a City Council committee last week. A stat from her presentation, which she repeated in media interviews afterward, stood out.
“In the discussions that we’re having with other police agencies, those that have the cameras are finding that in some cases complaints against officers have dropped by 80 percent,” Zimmerman said.
We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?
Most news reports are clear in noting the Rialto study author, Tony Farrar, is also the Chief of Police for the Rialto police departent. However, few explain this as a potential conflict of interest or a methodological problem. Farrar’s study was conducted as part of his criminology Masters research at Cambridge University. He was, importantly, simultaneously was the head of the agency and managed both complaint review processes and those officers involved in the study. Furthermore, he was added to the department and placed in this leadership role BETWEEN THE PRE- AND POST- PERIODS! There were things happening during this time beyond adding cameras: the leadership of the department changed, and specifically to someone who was invested in this outcome occurring!
Since Farrar’s hypothesis was that behaviors change when people know they are being carefully monitored, not only the cameras, but also the organizational authority of the individual designing and implementing the experimental study were variables.
Farrar’s research report and media articles relaying findings to public audiences fail to acknowledge Farrar’s role beyond that of an observer. He presumed a “view from nowhere” that necessarily troubles any research project. This is especially troubling, however, where the researcher is also a superior in a command-style bureaucracy. His position was hardly that of a neutral observer. Why, out of dozens of media reports, this is not raised as a problem is worth questioning.
Farrar was doubly committed to his hypothesis proving true, both as a researcher and as a publicly accountable police administrator. But in the Rialto case, this is especially punctuated. The city of Rialto was ready to disband the police department and turn law enforcement functions over to the county sheriff. Farrar was hired as a reformer in a last ditch effort to save the department and the jobs of all the officers and staff who worked there. A department troubled by a history of questionable use of force—so questionable that it posed an existential threat to it—had to demonstrate reduced use of force and other complaints or face elimination.
Farrar had a chance to demonstrate his capability as a police administrator—not only to local policy-makers, but to his criminology research committee examining him for a graduate degree.
Research on the efficacy of policy aimed at reducing use of force is often equivocal or tentative. Researchers do mostly agree that if policy is effective, it is because of the buy-in of managers, administrators, and officers. So we should expect that something would change when the head of a department is deeply committed to a policy designed to reforming use of force among its officers. However, the cameras are getting all the credit in this study.
The picture above is from my camera. You can see that I'm quite interested in the red dress.
Christopher Hays, SDPD
With SDPD's documented record of covering up for its own, there is NO confidence in allowing SDPD officers to decide when the cameras are turned on and off. And since video footage will no doubt be kept confidential due to police officer union insistence that nothing be made public, body cameras will have no demonstrable impact on their behavior. It's just window dressing to the tune of a few million more taxpayer dollars. As my editorial here advocated recently -- do something MEANINGFUL and give the Citizens Review Board on Police Practices the muscle to DO SOMETHING. Like subpoena powers and independence from the SDPD.
@Jim Jones @Martha Sullivan Jim, I admire your restraint; you waited almost a month since her appointment to call for Zimmerman's firing. Way to go!
@Jim Jones @Bill Bradshaw Jim, There's a difference between saying someone shoudn't have been picked for a job (e.g., maybe not qualified or simply appointed out of nepotism), and calling for their firing, which is normally associated with misconduct of some sort. Just what has Zimmerman done in her few weeks on the job that justifies canning her?
For those that want more details on what a Justice Department assessment might look like for SDPD, I've attached a six-month review of reforms in Las Vegas, which is going through a similar process. Final report there is coming soon. I haven't had an opportunity to dig through this report yet, but if you see anything interesting let me know.