TrueStatement: “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.

Determination: True

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.


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“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.

That’s accurate.

Police officers in the small city of Rialto in San Bernardino County have been wearing cameras since 2012. Rialto Police Chief William A. Farrar, working with a Cambridge University researcher, found two big results: Complaints against his officers declined by 88 percent and officer use of force declined by 60 percent.

“I thought going into this there would be a reduction at some level but I really didn’t think we’d have the reduction we had in both categories,” Farrar told VOSD.

The two numbers were considered among the first results from an academic examination of police body camera usage. A federal judge cited Rialto’s positive experience with cameras when she struck down New York City Police Department’s controversial pedestrian stop-and-frisk policy. Aside from San Diego, bigger police departments, such as Los Angeles, are at various stages of implementing body cameras for their officers, and cite Rialto’s numbers as reasons why.

Farrar, Rialto’s chief, compared the body cameras’ impact to that of closed-circuit television cameras on crime.

“Chances are if you’re being watched, you’re going to do things that are a little more in line with the norm,” he said.

Beyond the numbers, Farrar said the body cameras have also led to speedier internal investigations, an increase in criminal prosecutions, a rise in defendant plea bargains, greater officer professionalism and more public trust. He’s continued to monitor citizen complaints and use of force and seen sustained sharp decreases compared with the year before officers had cameras.

Rialto’s positive experience doesn’t necessarily mean those results will translate to San Diego. Its police force has just 115 officers, about a tenth of the number of cops SDPD hopes to outfit with the cameras. Because camera usage is so new, no one has done a similar study involving a large department. Nor should cameras be seen as a cure-all. Photography Is Not A Crime, a website that advocates for public documentation of police activity, detailed that body cameras have not fixed problems in the Albuquerque, N.M., police department.

Regardless, Zimmerman’s claim some departments have seen complaints drop by 80 percent after implementing cameras is true based on the Rialto study.

Aside from complaints and use of force, the cameras’ broader use has sparked fascinating discussions about privacy, transparency and accountability. Should officers be allowed to turn cameras off and on? Should the general public be allowed to see the body camera videos?

In Rialto, officers are required to turn on the cameras when they start an enforcement contact with someone, which ranges from ordinary traffic stops to the most serious crimes. Farrar said he’s had no problems with officers not following the rule.

Farrar also said that most footage of significance is part of a personnel investigation or criminal evidence and exempt from public disclosure.

San Diego police recently denied a public records request for video footage captured during a body camera pilot program from two officer-involved shootings. Officers said they didn’t have to make the videos public even after shooting investigations end.

Farrar hasn’t faced a similar situation, but said he’d consider making that kind of footage public once an investigation was complete.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

    This article relates to: Fact Check, News, Police, Police Misconduct, Racial Profiling, Share

    Written by Liam Dillon

    Liam Dillon is senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He leads VOSD’s investigations and writes about how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next? Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

    7 comments
    Ben Brucato
    Ben Brucato subscriber

    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.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    The picture above is from my camera.  You can see that I'm quite interested in the red dress.

    Signed,

    Christopher Hays, SDPD

    Martha Sullivan
    Martha Sullivan subscribermember

    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.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @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!

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    @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?