An officer wears a body camera in North Charleston, NC. Photo by Ryan Johnson, Flickr CC.
An officer wears a body camera in North Charleston, NC. Photo by Ryan Johnson, Flickr CC.

The issue of police brutality has long been a problem in U.S. criminal justice. Police-worn body cameras are one potential “remedy” to these violent encounters, but they have both benefits and drawbacks.

The cameras may increase transparency and improve police legitimacy, promote legally compliant behavior among both police officers and citizens, enhance evidence quality that can improve resulting legal proceedings, and deter officers’ use-of-force. Conversely, body-worn cameras could create privacy concerns for the officer and the citizenry and place a large logistical and financial burden on already cash-strapped law enforcement agencies.
This issue is so timely that research is only now starting to see publication, but we do have some early insights. The first observational studies examining the use of police-worn body cameras were carried out in England and Scotland. They found rates of citizen complaints dropped after body cameras were introduced. Preliminary results from an experimental study in Phoenix, Arizona also suggest that the use of body cameras reduces both self-reported and official records of citizen complaints.
The first experimental evidence concerning use-of-force comes from a large study in the Rialto, California Police Department, and the results should encourage advocates of body cameras. The study randomly assigned particular police shifts to wear body cameras (the “treatment”). Police shifts in the treatment condition are associated with reduced use-of-force: shifts in the control condition saw roughly twice as much use-of-force as the treatment condition and citizen complaints against the police were significantly reduced in the treatment condition.
Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in "Experimenter."
Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in “Experimenter.”

Late last fall, Experimenter brought classic experimental social science to Hollywood (it’s currently streaming on Netflix). The film depicts Stanley Milgram’s classic experimental obedience studies, where participants were asked by an experimenter to deliver a series of escalating shocks to a “learner” when he/she committed an error on a test. Unbeknownst to the participants, the “learner” was actually a confederate, and no shocks were actually delivered. Milgram found that 65% of the participants escalated to “delivering” the final 450-volt shock—far past dangerous levels. Milgram performed 19 variations of the experiment, including increasing the proximity of the participant and learner (that is, making them better known to each other, which decreased participant compliance) and using only females (which yielded similar results). Apart from the studies’ success at demonstrating the social forces that shape behavior, they have been a cornerstone of ethics in research debates in the social sciences.

Early critics claimed that the participants’ well-being was put at risk, due to the “distress [that] may have resulted from shock at what the experimenter was doing to them as well as from what they thought they were doing to their victims” (Baumrind 423).
  • Stanley Milgram. 1963. “Behavioral Study of Obedience,” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67: 371–378.
  • Stanley Milgram. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. London: Tavistock Publications.
  • Diana Baumrind. 1964. “Some Thoughts on Ethics of Research: After Reading Milgram’s ‘Behavioral Study of Obedience,'”American Psychologist 19(6): 421.
Numerous quasi-replications of the study have tweaked Milgram’s methodology to match contemporary ethical considerations. Milgram’s findings have been corroborated in replications that do not go to high voltage levels and in virtual simulations of the experiment. More recent work has added nuance, as well, finding variance in “obedience” based on the legitimacy of the “teacher” and the personality propensities and beliefs of the participant.
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Netflix made a big splash in “true crime” with its series Making a Murderer, chronicling the investigations and trials of Wisconsin man Steven Avery. Exonerated after 18 years in prison for sexual assault in 2003, Avery was arrested for a new crime—murder—in 2007. Public debate about the documentary revolves around whether Avery’s innocent, potential misconduct in the justice system, and the ethics and consequences of documentary “vigilante justice,” but there is little doubt Avery was wrongfully convicted the first time around, in 1985. Social science helps us understand the more systematic consequences of incarceration and exoneration that cultural phenomena like Making a Murderer, the Serial podcast, and even the upcoming miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” bring to our attention.

Pop culture tends to focus on errors, like witness misidentification and shoddy forensics, but those are not the only things that lead to wrongful convictions. Sociological research shows blacks and Hispanics are at a higher risk, and these groups are, in fact, overrepresented in samples of exonerees. Black exonerees suffer longer periods of incarceration between their conviction and exoneration than other groups. And exonerations often raise questions about the criminal justice system’s authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
Exonerees, even those who aren’t in a media spotlight, face practical problems after they are released from prison. The stigma of having served time diminishes chances in the employment and housing markets, even for those who are exonerated. Like others experiencing reentry after incarceration, exonerees also face unmet needs with regard to physical, dental, and mental healthcare, as well as the myriad challenges of rebuilding social networks and reintegrating to everyday life.


A message left at a memorial for Marcelo Lucero, a Hispanic victim of a hate crime on Long Island. Photo by Long Island Twins via Flickr.
A message left at a memorial for Marcelo Lucero, a Hispanic victim of a hate crime on Long Island. Photo by Long Island Twins via Flickr.

The Emmanuel AME shootings in Charleston, South Carolina have reignited public discussion of both terrorism and hate crimes. While the media often focuses on foreign religious extremism as a motivation for domestic attacks, data show more radicalization has taken place on the political far-right (independent of religion or race) than among Muslims in the United States. Since 9/11, only 25 recorded attacks have been committed by Muslim extremists, while 65 attacks were driven by right-wing extremists at home. So what’s the difference between terror and a hate crime? Is there a difference? Sociological research shows how public discourse and community differences can change the story.

Words like “terrorism” and “hate crime” change across social contexts. In the U.S., acts of violence perpetrated by minority populations are more likely to be defined as acts of terrorism, whereas “home-grown” offenders are likely to be dismissed as crazy, deranged, or evil—“bad apples” rather than people motivated by hate or politics. For hate-crimes, the pattern is reversed. Hate crimes that involve majority perpetrators, particularly in interracial incidents, are linked to higher seriousness ratings. In both cases, the social position of both perpetrator and victim changes how we interpret the violence.
American anti-black hate crimes are most prevalent in communities with a high concentration of white residents that are undergoing black in-migration. This suggests that majority members may try to “defend turf” from the perceived threat of “outsiders”. Compliance with hate crime law is less likely in high-percentage black communities, particularly in the southern U.S. Within these black communities, past lynchings (between 1882-1930) are associated with lower compliance with hate crime law in the present and a lower likelihood of prosecution of hate crime cases.

For more on this issue, check out our other TROT! post, “How Hate Crimes Count.”

Attorney General Eric Holder has reduced the ability of law enforcement agencies to seize assets without a criminal conviction, an “informal measure” of policing known as civil forfeiture. The program had been expanded by the 1984 Comprehensive Crime Control Act in an effort to curtail the sale and distribution of illegal drugs, and it has since allowed law enforcement agencies to divide and keep the majority of proceeds seized from forfeitures.

Proponents argue that civil forfeiture makes certain crimes less profitable and redistributes resources for socially beneficial programs. Critics say it might be part of a “hidden economic agenda” behind “tough on crime” initiatives and can lead to due process infringements
Institutional contexts are important: 40% of law enforcement agencies report dependence on the revenue produced from civil forfeitures. Agencies in states with strict forfeiture policies tend to use federal “equitable sharing” policies more often, even after accounting for factors such as official crime rates and drug arrests. This suggests agencies try to maximize their returns on civil forfeiture seizures.
Law enforcement agencies operating in high inequality areas and more conservative voting districts seize more value per drug arrest. This ratio also increases with agency complexity but drops in districts with higher black populations. Agencies may use more formal measures, such as arrests, in majority minority areas.

With more video evidence released of Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, in a New Jersey Casino elevator, the media has been buzzing over Rice’s release from the Baltimore Ravens and indefinite suspension from participation in the NFL. Rice was originally suspended for two games, but the public felt this punishment didn’t fit the crime, especially since other players had been suspended entire seasons for smoking marijuana. After the backlash over the disproportionate sentencing handed out by league President Roger Goodell and the NFL, the league altered its policies towards domestic assault conduct. From Michael Vick’s dogfighting scandal to the relatively recent Aaron Hernandez debacle, the NFL has been under heavy scrutiny over the conduct of its players. How do these big organizations handle such scandals?

Comparisons of arrest rates in the NFL and the general population show that players often have lower rates that the national average for all offenses, including domestic violence. The “NFL criminality myth” is perpetuated when sport is interpreted through a “white lens,” and parallels that of general stereotypes about blacks as crime prone.
Within the NFL, arrests for domestic violence are higher than any other crime, unlike the general population where arrests are higher for other offenses. Few players are successfully prosecuted in the courts for domestic assault, though, and they rarely face sanctions on their eligibility to play.
There is widespread agreement among the general population about which crimes are severe, and what constitutes a just punishment for those crimes (although demographics and victim/offender characteristics modify these effects slightly).  The original punishment handed down to Ray Rice did not fit into our collective conceptions of morality and justice, and public outrage is one symptom of that mismatch.
Sociologists know that when an organization’s reputation and integrity is threatened, they often attempt to fix things by distancing themselves from the problem or the perpetrator (disassociation), and/or implementing policies that attempt corrective action. Sometimes these actions are just symbolic gestures, but sometimes they also show real institutional change. In this case the NFL seems to be following the script!