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ASU Professor Studied Body Cams On Mesa Officers Years Before Brailsford Case

Published: Tuesday, April 5, 2016 - 5:08pm
Updated: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 - 2:53pm
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Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez/KJZZ
A Mesa police officer demonstrates a body camera.

Mesa Police Officer Phillip Mitchell Brailsford was charged with the murder of an unarmed man last month. He was wearing a body camera when the shots were fired.

The case surprised former Arizona State University professor Justin Ready, who studied the Mesa Police Department’s use of body cameras when they first started using them in 2012. He said he’s surprised the footage exists in the first place.

“It’s rare that there’s any video footage attached to situations that involve lethal use of force,” he said.

Ready was a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice when he conducted this study with fellow professor Jacob Young. Now, he’s a criminology professor at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

Mesa Police Department asked them to conduct the study, Ready said. In it, they had 50 officers in the field wear body cameras and compared them to a control group of 50 officers who didn’t.

They found cameras caused officers to, in general, be much more risk-averse than they were otherwise, Ready said.

“When we looked at officer behavior, we found significant differences in the types of actions that officers took,” he said.

One of the key findings was that officers wearing body cameras conducted about 10 percent fewer stop and frisks compared to officers who weren’t wearing cameras, Ready said. They also found that officers wearing cameras conducted fewer misdemeanor arrests and they wrote more tickets.

On top of that, Ready said body cameras also seemed to make citizens think twice about their actions.

“We’ve had lots of situations where officers on the street notified or informed citizens that the camera was rolling and the citizens definitely, kind of, calmed down, de-escalated the situation and became less confrontational,” he said.

But he said it would be a mistake to think that this new technology will solve community divisions with police.

Since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson sparked heated protests, more and more police departments across the country started having their officers wear body cameras. Pundits at the time seemed to think if the officer in Ferguson had been wearing one of these cameras, the civil unrest that followed could have been avoided.

But Ready said lethal situations like the one in Mesa occur only in a tiny fraction of all officer-citizen interactions.

“The big thing that the media and the current administration is thinking about is the way that the technology can impact police officers, especially in lethal force or potentially lethal situations,” Ready said. “Police use force in only about 1 percent of police-citizen interactions, and lethal force situations occur in a fraction of those 1 percent.”

In the study officers also didn’t activate their cameras all of the time, he said, even when there was a mandatory activation policy in place.

“The reality is that typically officers only activate the camera in a small proportion of their overall shift time,” he said. “So, you don’t know for sure how much of a difference the technology is going to make, especially when one considers that lethal force situations are so incredibly rare.”

So, if the public thinks having officers wear body cameras will guarantee consensus in a community over a case, they are mistaken, he said.

“It’s a mistake to assume that the video is going to give you the truth,” he said.

Officer Brailsford’s body camera footage hasn’t been released to the public yet, but the County Attorney’s Office said it was part of their investigation into the officer.

But Ready warned that seeing what’s recorded in an officer-worn video doesn’t mean everyone will agree on what they saw in it.

“A video gives you one perspective and one perspective only,” he said. “We don’t know a lot of things that happen during police-citizen interactions, even when we have the video recording.”

People with entrenched views on either side of a controversial case will see what they want to see in a video, Ready said.

“It’s not going to bring consensus,” he said. “In fact, a lot of times with video recordings of police-citizen interactions what it has the potential to do is create more division.”

Editor's note: The caption of the photo has been updated. 

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