The Tijuana Police Force is rolling out a new program equipping all officers with body cameras with the express purpose of cutting down on corruption. Public perceptions of corruption within the police force run high, a sentiment shared both within and without the force. Tijuana Police Chief Alejandro Lares Valladares hopes that the body cameras, in addition to helping with the force’s tarnished reputation, will also highlight what he feels is a key but far less-discussed aspect of the city’s rampant corruption: the willingness of the public to instigate corrupt exchanges. (In what was a near-perfect opening act for Lares Valladares’ program, just a few days after Tijuana police officers began wearing the cameras, a driver pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt, who also did not have her driver’s license, offered to bribe the officer. Footage of the exchange helped Lares Valladares convince those within his department that the cameras are not being used only as means of policing the police, but as a means of protecting all parties.)
Body cameras do have the potential to cut down on corruption, but only if the program is administered correctly. Recent studies on how body cameras influence the use of force both by and against US police officers provide a few key lessons, Police Chief Lares Valladares and his colleagues in Tijuana should take into account.
- First, and most straightforwardly, there is ample evidence that surveillance–or even the perception or threat of surveillance—changes our behavior. This has been catalogued in diverse experiments over the years, including this 2006 paper finding that people left three times the amount of tips when a picture of eyes was left over a tip jar as compared to a picture of flowers, and this 2013 paper finding that while installing surveillance systems in restaurants resulted in only modest savings from theft alerts, they resulted in significant increases in revenue, likely because employees’ knowledge they were being watched encouraged them to focus on their jobs. The research to date on the impact of police body cameras is consistent with this conclusion. An influential study by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology (IoC), in collaboration with the police department in Rialto, California. found that use of force by officers fell by 59%, and reports against officers dropped by 87% (compared to the previous year’s figures).
- Second, and more specifically, while after-the-fact documentary evidence is important in bribery prosecutions, the cameras’ true value lies in how they structure interactions before a bribe is offered. To maximize this deterrent effect, both officers and the public should have the general expectation that each interaction will be recorded and, more importantly, should be reminded of this fact at the start of each interaction. As noted by the IoC’s Dr. Barak Ariel, “With institutionalized body-worn camera use, an officer is obliged to issue a warning from the start that an encounter is being filmed, impacting the psyche of all involved by conveying a straightforward, pragmatic message: We are all being watched, videotaped, and expected to follow the rules.” Going forward, Lares Valladares should require his officers to inform citizens that everything is being recorded at the start of every interaction.
- A third lesson learned from US police body cameras has to do with who controls the film, both at the time of recording and at the end of the interaction. Currently, most police body cameras are at the mercy of the wearer. Even discounting any nefarious purposes, early research from New Orleans and Denver found that among officers wearing body cameras, the cameras were often not turned on in a high percentage of situations involving the use of force. Reasons for officers not turning on their cameras vary (according to the Denver study, which admittedly has many problems, reasons included forgetting to turn them on, not having time to turn them on, and technical malfunctions). If the power to record remains with the officer, power imbalances between the officers and citizens during interactions, and questions about the integrity of the recordings after they’ve been entered into the police system, could erode confidence in the program. Using cameras which cannot be turned off, or which turn on and off based on external events (for example, when car sirens go off or when the police car door opens) would be ideal. Better technology of course requires more resources, but analysis of the Rialto experiment encouragingly showed that for every dollar spent implementing the camera program, four dollars were saved on complaint litigation. What is done with the video afterwards is equally important. Ideally, the videos would be immediately uploaded to at least two databases, one of which the police may immediately access and one to which they have no access.
Body cameras have the potential to be a strong anti-corruption tool for the Tijuana police force, both as a deterrent and as a means of collecting evidence. If the right expectations are set, Chief Lares Valladares may make headway in reducing everyday bribery between Tijuana officers and citizens.