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Fact Check: Do Police Cameras Decrease Police Complaints?

Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman said that in departments that have implemented body cameras, complaints against officers have dropped by 80 percent.

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.

“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.

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