Camera phone 'pervasiveness' reduces police violence, study finds

A new study by an Ottawa police officer suggests police are reporting fewer uses of force because of the possibility they could be filmed.

Ottawa police officer interviewed more than 200 officers for Carleton research project

Greg Brown recently published his research on the effects of social media and cameras on front-line police officers in the British Journal of Criminology. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

One night five years ago, Greg Brown was patrolling a busy Ottawa street when he was attacked while subduing a violent man.

"I was going to punch the person. I was going to use an open-handed technique to stop the person from assaulting me," said the Ottawa police officer.

"And as I raised up my arm to do that, I realized what's going to be visible to the people standing behind me videotaping this."

Brown, who has been on the force for 28 years and is a PhD candidate in sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, turned that sudden insight into the basis for a research project into how the "omnipresent pervasiveness" of camera-equipped cellphones has reduced frontline officers' willingness to use force.

'The new reality'

His paper, The Blue Line on Thin Ice: Police Use of Force Modifications in the Era of Cameraphones and YouTube, was published recently in the British Journal of Criminology. 

"It's the new reality today, in pretty much every atmosphere for policing; urban, suburban, even rural now," Brown told Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan on Wednesday. "All of us have smartphones."

Very seldom are officers actually aware that they're being recorded.- Greg Brown, Ottawa police officer and PhD candidate at Carleton University

As part of the research, Brown spoke with 231 frontline officers from forces in Toronto and Ottawa.

Nearly three-quarters of the officers Brown interviewed told him they had modified their on-the-job behaviour based on the possibility they could end up being filmed.

Reluctant to use force

More than half were either more reluctant to use force in an arrest or had used less force than normal, Brown said. The average officer perceived they'd been recorded about 17 times in their career, a number that could easily be higher, he added.

"Very seldom are officers actually aware that they're being recorded," said Brown. 

"When an officer's dealing with somebody — maybe using force, trying to resolve a certain issue — their attention isn't focused on somebody who could be standing 100 metres away, filming them. Their attention is on what's going on on the ground."

One of the "surprising, anecdotal" findings of his research, said Brown, was that many officers support being equipped with body cameras, in part because they feel citizen videos don't tell the whole story.

"What's captured is when the officer starts to react to the stimuli," said Brown. "And then that's what's put on the news and [is] what the public sees."

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