Cross-disciplinary team of researchers explores issues surrounding digital policing
On the surface, a camera recording of an interaction between a police officer and a citizen seems like a basic concept. But when the “record” light blinks on, it touches off a wave of digital variables – nothing short of a technological transformation within police work.
The ripples are far-reaching and sometimes surprising: From the way the camera alters officers’ behavior during interactions with community members, to privacy issues, to video storage demands, to the way recordings play out in the wider criminal justice system.
The Creative Research Collaborative (CRC) Fellows Talk on March 9 examines some of the questions that spring from this tech revolution in law enforcement. The CRC promotes cross-disciplinary research at CU Denver, and professors in computer science, business and sociology have found – on the topic of body-worn cameras – a fertile place for collaborative study.
The researchers are Ronald Ramirez, PhD, associate professor of information systems; Onook Oh, PhD, assistant professor of information systems; and Keith Guzik, PhD, associate professor of sociology; and Abdul Sesay, a doctoral candidate in Computer Science and Information Systems (CSIS) in the CU Denver Business School.
Perfect fit for collaboration
Last spring, Ramirez, Oh and Sesay were looking to add another perspective to their body-worn camera research when they found Guzik on the CU Denver website. “The project Ron, Onook and Abdul were working on was a perfect fit,” said Guzik, whose latest book looks at how surveillance technologies impact governance in Mexico’s war on crime. “Their perspective is informed by an information systems background and the ways this technology affects the day-to-day operations of a police department. I bring in the criminology side of it.”
The idea to examine body-worn cameras sprang from Sesay, who previously worked in the Denver Mayor’s Office of the Independent Monitor. The office has purview over the handling of citizen complaints, including complaints about police-citizen interactions.
Sesay began collaborating on research into this digital change in police work with Ramirez and Oh. “Abdul is a highly-qualified PhD student, and he’s gotten our papers into two high-level conferences,” Ramirez said. The CRC grant allowed Sesay to travel to the conferences, which preceded the study’s acceptance into the Big 12-Plus Management Information Systems (MIS) Research Symposium in Omaha, Neb., in April. “The exposure of the research at these other conferences led to the symposium,” Ramirez said. “When we get more exposure, it helps the Business School and the university.”
Guzik said the CRC grant was helpful in opening the door to a fruitful collaboration in which the researchers are interviewing law enforcement officials at eight municipal police departments in Colorado, including Denver and neighboring cities. The main question they are asking is, “What is the impact of body-worn cameras on police officers and law-enforcement organizations?”
Local PDs form camera policies on own
They are finding that the cameras can influence the “strong physical position” and language used by officers when interacting with citizens and possible crime suspects. The devices also raise important policy questions: Do individual officers, for instance, have the authority to turn them on and off? At an organizational level, how are police departments coping with the high costs of storing the growing digital data, and how are they dealing with privacy issues that arise from body-worn cameras?
“There’s not a national standard for these practices,” Guzik said. “So, local departments are needing to form policies for themselves.”
With a new presidential administration in Washington, D.C., that emphasized “law-and-order” in its platform, the matter of body-worn cameras in policing will likely remain a hot-button issue.
Body-worn cameras subject of CRC talk
This article is the last in a four-part series about this year’s CRC Fellows. The final CRC Fellows’ Talk of this academic year takes place at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 9, at Inworks, 1250 14th St., Denver, in Room 1300A. The talk, which features Ronald Ramirez, PhD, and Keith Guzik, PhD, both exploring the issue of body-worn cameras by police, is free and open to the CU Denver community.
The CU Denver researchers plan to share the data they collect with the police departments and community organizations they interview. They would like the entities to come together to share best practices and cost efficiencies with each other.
The group is also applying for National Science Foundation grants in order to sustain the research into a longer-term project. So far, the researchers secured one NSF award – a Dissertation Improvement Grant, which was won by Sesay. Also, the group is preparing a few research papers for premier academic journals in the areas of information systems, criminology and sociology.
Guzik said CU Denver’s support of this research, via the CRC, has been vital. “Sometimes with these collaborations, you dance a little at first, and then you get busy and it doesn’t continue,” he said. “But with the CRC, it has cemented our collaboration.”