Written by Bridget McAllister, Jeffry Mateo, and Will Streissguth
On Wednesday, June 6th, and Thursday, June 7th, the Syracuse Police Department hosted public forums on police body cameras. The forums, held at the Onondaga County Public Library on South Salina Street, were led by Detective Mark Russin, and focused on community concerns regarding the use of body cameras and their footage. According to Detective Russin, the Syracuse Police Department currently has 16 working body cameras, but hopes to launch 100 by the end of summer 2018. The cameras, located at the center of an officer’s vest, record the 30 seconds prior to an officer switching them on, and take 3 consecutive seconds to shut off. A camera’s footage uploads automatically to the Cloud and, once encrypted, cannot be altered or deleted.
But behind the scenes, a different kind of assessment was being conducted: A behavioral insights trial. Before the forums, community members were asked to fill out either of two brief, color-coded surveys. One survey form focused on community members’ general knowledge and opinions of Syracuse’s police force and city hall; the other asked for demographic information. At the end of the forums, attendees were asked to then fill out the opposite survey of the one they received at the beginning, determined by colored shirt stickers.
We’ve talked about behavioral insights trials before, and this time are testing to see what kind of messaging works best to get residents to attend public meetings. The Behavioral Insights Team, or BIT, partnered with City Hall and Syracuse City School District to send community members experimental robo-calls prior to the forum. Three test groups were organized by street address: one group received a call voiced by Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh telling them about the event; the second group received a similar call voiced by “Matt the Average Neighbor”; the third control group received no phone call whatsoever. The demographic surveys at the body camera forum asked attendees for the names of their streets, which will show which test group attended the meeting in greatest numbers. This survey is another step toward potential greater implementation of behavioral science in Syracuse’s government, and how it interacts and engages with the public.
“Often, states and municipalities...are taking various policies and implementing them at-scale...without taking account of behavioral science,” says Joe Boskovski, Managing Director and co-founder of the Maxwell X Lab, specializing in behavioral economics and randomized evaluations. Boskovski says that behavioral economics seeks to understand the systematic ways people make errors or mistakes, and allow organizations to plan or design around them.
Boskovski says that behavioral economics began being phased into governments sometime around the early 2010s, beginning in England under the Cameron administration. Other governments, like the Obama administration, followed suit on a federal level. Soon, he says, more localized town and city governments began incorporating behavioral economics units, like Washington, D.C., Denver, and Philadelphia.
“There’s quite a bit of innovation,” says Boskovski. “None of the proliferation of these behavioral science units looks the same.” He says that no two cities’ populations are quite alike, which has to be taken into account when implementing public policy or intervention.
“Across many cultural contexts...there are the same underlying principles or tenets of behavioral science,” says Boskovski. “We all tend to be biased in similar ways, or to make cognitive errors in similar ways.” He finds that much of behavioral economics involves understanding why people fail to do things, and finding ways to motivate them.
The group that received a call from Ben Walsh represents the power of social pressure by an authority figure, while the group that received a call from “Matt the Average Neighbor” represents the power of social pressure by one’s group or community. The third group, who received no call, act as a control group; between the three of them, the results will show the City of Syracuse how to better motivate citizens to take advantage of civic engagement.
“If they’re systematic, from both a behavioral science and an evaluation perspective,” says Boskovski, “there’s much more to come from that space.”