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NYPD studying effects of body cams, impact on policing

A body camera of he kind being used

A body camera of he kind being used by NYPD officers.  Credit: Charles Eckert

NYPD officials are turning over massive amounts of data on body-worn cameras to a special court monitor in an effort to discover whether the devices are  affecting the way cops are doing their jobs, including decisions on stop-and-frisks, officials said.

The number crunching is said to be the largest ever done on the impact of body cameras on policing. It comes at a time when scores of smaller studies in the United States and abroad have generally found that cops support the use of the cameras, and that they seem to have led to a reduction in complaints against officers. 

Those smaller studies, which were analyzed recently by a team of researchers from the Department of Criminology at George Mason University, have also dispelled fears that cops wouldn’t take proactive action if they are wearing cameras.

So far, said Assistant Chief Matthew Pontillo, who supervises the body-camera rollout, it's hard to speculate about what the new findings would be. 

“Most police departments don’t have the number of people operate on the size and scope that we do,” Pontillo said recently, referring to the way the NYPD study differs from anything done previously.

The randomized NYPD control study is being done under the supervision of Peter Zimroth,  a private attorney appointed in 2014 as special monitor in the controversial federal stop-and-frisk lawsuit that was settled that year. Judge Shira Scheindlin recommended in 2013 that the NYPD carry out a pilot study on the use of body cameras.

In April 2017, the NYPD decided to do a larger rollout of body cameras, and by February of this year had about 23,000 uniformed cops with the cameras — known as BWCs — including every officer, sergeant and lieutenant assigned to precincts and transit and housing area commands. 

The NYPD uses cameras for crime-fighting and training purposes, and so far the compliance rate among cops — using cameras when they are supposed to — has increased, although a couple of commands have problems, said Insp. Josephine Murphy, commander of the NYPD compliance unit. She couldn’t provide specific numbers.

There have been a few glitches, such as the time last year when an older-model camera caught fire, forcing the NYPD to pull 3,000 cameras from service.

According to the Police Benevolent Association, an earlier union poll found that cops generally favored the use of body cameras. No recent polling has been done, however, said a PBA spokesman.

For the study, Zimroth and the NYPD chose 1,200 cops in selected precincts who were wearing cameras to be compared  with a control group of other officers not wearing them. With the study period over, NYPD officials have been organizing the data to send to Zimroth’s team, said Lt. Tara Coffey, one of the NYPD officials involved in the project.

A source familiar with the Zimroth study said that his team of researchers  would review the BWC impact on complaints made against cops, the level of arrests, and the  number of other policing actions, such as stop-and-frisks.  

The George Mason University team, led by Cynthia Lum, examined 70 empirical studies addressing the impact of cameras on both officer and citizen behavior. Some of those studies, Pontillo said, were better designed than others.

Among the findings in the university review: Cops support using cameras, as do members of the public; cameras seem to reduce the use of force by cops, although recent findings have been mixed; and cameras seem to reduce complaints against officers.

The NYPD study is made more of a challenge because the past two years, when the camera trial was underway, saw a lot of changes in the NYPD, such as the addition of neighborhood policing, Pontillo said.

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