Should Police Wear Body Cameras? Experts Pick Sides
From Baton Rouge to Charlotte, Cleveland to Ferguson and North Charleston to Tulsa, the high-profile police shootings of minority individuals that we’ve witnessed over the past two-plus years have aroused deep-seeded feelings of mistrust and resentment across the country. In keeping with our long history of racial rancor, this latest chapter in our societal struggle for equality has initially served only to divide us. You’re either with the police or with the people, it seems.
Transparency is a big part of the problem. Speculation takes center stage in most of these unfortunate situations long before real facts are presented, as cell-phone footage and preconceived notions fuel our 24-hour news cycle. Questions of whether the victim had a weapon or law enforcement acted overzealously are therefore left unanswered, allowing all such cases to be painted with very broad brushes in the court of public opinion.
Police body cameras represent one potential solution, at least in terms of the uncertainty that lingers in the wake of alleged brutality. Having police wear body cameras, proponents argue, adds another layer of accountability for both sides of the equation, making officers think twice about overstepping their duties and letting the rest of us know that we can’t try to rewrite the history of our interactions with police. They might even help improve police-community relations, considering that body cameras led to a 93% decline in complaints against officers in a recent study of seven police departments in the U.S. and U.K. by researchers at the University of Cambridge.
But body cameras are far from a panacea. They’re not even very effective, say some detractors, due to malfunctions, privacy concerns and matters of due process that prevent footage from being released quickly when needed. Perhaps that’s why none of New York City’s 35,800 police officers currently is equipped with one.
A couple of things remain clear, however: the issue of police body cameras isn’t as straightforward as some people think, and officer-involved shootings aren’t going to stop anytime soon. So with that in mind, we went in search of answers, posing one straightforward question a panel of leading experts in the fields of criminal justice, public policy and technology: Should police wear body cameras? Below, you can check out their answers – which include 19 Yeses, 1 Maybe and 1 No – as well as share your own thoughts on this extremely important issue.
Police Should Wear Body Cameras
- “Police officers should be required to wear cameras on their bodies. Body-worn cameras provide members of the public, the media, and researchers with vital information about the quality of police-public interactions — especially the relatively small, but critical, minority that involve officer use of force. These videos will not resolve all debates about the propriety of the officer behaviors they portray, but the information they do reveal can advance empirically grounded policing reform.”
Megan Quattlebaum // Program Director, Justice Collaboratory, Yale Law School
- "There is a considerable amount of data that suggests that the use of body-worn cameras is an effective way of improving the behavior and actions of police officers and the public alike. Reductions in response to resistance incidents (i.e. use of force), decreases in civilian complaints, declines in civilian injuries and reductions in injuries to officers themselves are all net positives that have been realized after the implementation of body-worn camera programs. It has been proven that the presence of recording devices has a direct impact on the conduct of those involved in most instances."
Merrell R. Bennekin // Deputy Executive Director, Board of Police Commissioners, Office of Community Complaints in Kansas City
- "In my opinion, body-worn cameras are an important tool for increasing legitimacy in law enforcement as long as strict procedures are established. ... Police departments must have mandatory requirements for video-taping and must hold officers accountable for failing to comply, as many cities are finding that officers turn off bodycams during encounters that may be volatile. Failure to record can also result in community distrust."
Barbara Attard // Co-Author, Police Misconduct Complaint Investigations Manual
- "The imbalance of power between the accused versus the word of the officer is vast and, as we have seen in far too many cases, impenetrable - even when the evidence appears irrefutable. But as Gandhi's words remind us, 'we must make injustice visible.' Body cameras may not be the sole panacea for the overwhelming criminal justice reform needed to legally address and remedy systemic racial inequality in America today, but it is a start, a way forward."
Carol Camp Yeakey // Founding Director, Interdisciplinary Program in Urban Studies, Center on Urban Research & Public Policy, Washington University in St. Louis
- Gregory Magarian
- Jerry Threet
- Megan Quattlebaum
- Carol Camp Yeakey
- Garrett Albert Duncan
- Howard Rahtz
- Risdon N. Slate
- Merrell R. Bennekin
- Michael J. Jenkins
- Charis E. Kubrin
- Kami N. Chavis
- George D. Perezvelez
- Barbara Attard
- John M. Violanti
- David E. Choate
- Carol A. Archbold
- Mina Q. Malik
- David Hinners
- Sean M. Smoot
We know from a seemingly endless series of police brutality and misconduct cases that police officers now aren’t accountable enough for their actions. How can we improve police accountability absent body cameras?
Opponents of body cameras often argue that private citizens’ cell phone videos provide an adequate substitute for police body cameras. To be sure, advocates for police accountability should fight hard to establish legal protections for private citizens who record police activity. However, in the vast majority of police encounters with the public, no private citizen has the opportunity and presence of mind to make a useful video record. Other opponents of body cameras claim that video evidence of police misconduct is inconclusive. That’s true, as far as it goes; information is never perfect. Video recordings, however, can greatly enhance the sparse or nonexistent evidence in many police brutality or misconduct cases. The perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of the good.
Privacy concerns make the strongest arguments against police body cameras. Confidential informants, victims of sexual violence, and ordinary citizens who encounter police shouldn’t have to fear enhanced video surveillance. How, then, can we ensure privacy if police wear body cameras?
We can make sensible rules. The American Civil Liberties Union advocates laws and policies designed to maximize body cameras’ utility while protecting personal privacy. Officers should have to turn on body cameras when, and only when, “responding to a call for service or at the initiation of any other law enforcement or investigative encounter between a police officer and a member of the public.” Officers’ failures to turn on their cameras in those circumstances should bring strong legal consequences. Officers should provide notice when they’re recording, especially in people’s homes. Police departments should flag footage relevant to investigations and destroy all other footage quickly. Release and use of footage should be subject to strict protocols.
Under the sort of rigorous, careful regime the ACLU proposes, body cameras can increase police accountability at a low cost to personal privacy.
In this time of heightened distrust between law enforcement agencies and parts of the public, Body-Worn Cameras (BWC) are an invaluable tool in increasing transparency and repairing public trust. Every jurisdiction should equip law enforcement personnel with BWC, to protect both the public and the officers.
Before digital video recorders were readily available, incidents between officers and the public were a “he said” – “she said” situation. Adding to this challenge, eyewitness recall of stressful events is notoriously unreliable, with every witness remembering a different reality, resulting in drastic discrepancies in accounts. As a result, it was historically difficult to answer definitively when or how an officer might be acting inappropriately during a critical incident.
Video does not mislead or recall incorrectly. With BWC, the basic facts of an interaction between an officer and a member of the public often can be readily observed and established. BWC thus can go a long way toward answering questions about the appropriateness of officer behavior in high profile incidents. Of course, equally important to interpreting the meaning of BWC video is what the officer and member of the public reasonably perceived to be happening at the time of a stressful encounter. But, often, BWC footage can be so clarifying as to remove much doubt even from this interpretation.
The evidence so far supports the conclusion that, more often than not, BWC show that most officers handle themselves in compliance with the law and agency policies. In those examples where this is not the case, BWC are crucial in identifying inappropriate behavior so that officers can be appropriately disciplined for their misconduct.
BWC thus is a win for both the public and police officers.
But to say that officers should wear cameras is to begin the conversation, not end it. With body cameras, the difficulty is in the details. Many questions remain.
Should body camera footage be subject to disclosure pursuant to federal and state Freedom of Information laws? I say yes — this footage is not qualitatively different from other public records generated by law enforcement agencies. There are exemptions in these laws that allow agencies not to disclose records that would compromise law enforcement investigations or proceedings or expose the identity or endanger the safety of witnesses or informants.
Should officers be prohibited from viewing body camera footage before filing their reports or being interviewed about what was recorded? Again, I say yes — this will help to preserve the independent evidentiary value of the officers’ accounts. Should officers should be required, whenever practicable, to notify those whom they film that the encounter is being recorded and to receive on-camera consent for filming inside homes? My answers are yes and yes.
These are just a few of the many thorny problems communities seeking to develop policy on the use of body cameras must address. And every individual who is concerned about transparency, privacy, and the future of policing will have to come to their own conclusions about how best to resolve them.
We know that Americans generally think that body worn cameras are a good idea — even across divides of race and political affiliation — but opinions on specific policies governing their use are more complex. Local communities may well decide some of these questions differently, and they should have the opportunity to do so.
Thus, the most important recommendation for any community that wishes to bring body cameras online is to consult with a wide range of stakeholders before doing so. These stakeholders should include frontline officers, community groups, the local media, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police officers’ unions, and the general public. Body camera policies will be perceived as legitimate only if they are developed in a manner that is deliberative and consultative; shared publicly and widely; and re-visited from time to time as experience grows and technologies change. The bottom line: body cameras are a good idea; publicly and transparently deliberating the policies that govern them will make them even better.
Since the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and others, the national conversation about the treatment of persons of color by the police are once again the source of intense debate. Unprovoked violence against minorities has flared again, this time in Oklahoma and North Carolina. It is now reasonable to ask, where is the promised police reform in the criminal justice system? Most persons do not doubt the overwhelming tasks and challenges in confronting the intransigence of racism in America and the multi-layered remedies needed to confront and eradicate all vestiges of racial animus in the society. Proposals such as police retraining, citizen or civilian police-review boards, cultural competency courses for police, new field training exercises to refine rules of engagement and unjustifiable use of deadly force have yielded little result. With more than 12,000 local police departments in the country, compelling evidence shows that progress toward police retraining has been uneven to nonexistent. The question remains, how long must marginalized communities of color be expected to wait patiently for justice delayed and denied? At the core of the problem is the need for police and criminal justice reform that goes beyond interpersonal racial reconciliation. What is required is criminal justice reform to legally address and remedy systemic racial inequality.
As a partial step, the use of body worn cameras can be a step in the right direction. To be sure, BWCs are not perfect, and critics point to privacy issues, problems with data retention, public disclosure policies, officer and community concerns and financial considerations with respect to data storage. What are some perceived benefits? BWCs provide better evidence documentation, increased accountability and transparency. In effect, they provide a more impartial lens on reality, a more reliable version of truth, for all involved. The National Institute of Justice has funded research on BWCs, and their impact on police-citizen behavior and on crime. But from the Rialto, California experiment in 2012, we have enough evidence to know that cameras induce self-awareness that can prevent unacceptable uses of force that have implications for both the accused and the accuser.
In the absence of BWCs, what redress do marginalized citizens have? What redress do the families of the unarmed victims have? The imbalance of power between the accused versus the word of the officer is vast and, as we have seen in far too many cases, impenetrable, even when the evidence appears irrefutable. But as Gandhi’s words remind us, “we must make injustice visible.” Body cameras may not be the sole panacea for the overwhelming criminal justice reform needed to legally address and remedy systemic racial inequality in America today, but it is a start, a way forward.
The use of these body cameras has the possibility to serve the public good in diverse ways. For example, it enables the speedy disclosure of information through press conferences. I imagine such T.V. events as being convened jointly with civic leaders and community members. The timing and collaborative nature of these public airings may at once allay legitimate social angst and outrage of members of our communities and engender the desired trust of the same for our public servants.
A final thought. It goes without saying that the use of body cameras by police officers will go only so far to ameliorate the violence that beset too many of our communities. Having stated this, in addition to the judicious use of such technologies, I urge police officers and officials to join forces with those of us in various regions who share track records of reducing suffering in our respective communities. These efforts are often led by loving mothers and fathers; their disenfranchised but self-empowered sons and daughters; members of various professions who do well in their own lives and do good in the lives of others; and, groups of faith-based organizations that allow love to lead their ways. Such joint efforts, in my view, have enhanced capacities to address the social ills that plague us all.
- Finances – The upfront costs to issue a body cam to an officer is just over $1,000 but the bigger costs are data storage. At least two departments that were early on the body cam band wagon have terminated their use, citing data storage costs.
- Policy – Proposals range from requirements to run the body cam for the entirety of the time an officer is on duty to requiring the officer to initiate the camera during selected citizen encounters. For some police critics, allowing the officer the power to control when the body cam is turned on defeats the purpose. But running the body cams full time jacks up the costs considerably and will result in a high percentage of empty video. A policy specifying circumstances when the cameras must be running seems a logical solution. Agreement on release of the videos should also be part of the policy discussion. A discussion with community leaders in developing this policy will add to police transparency.
- Fewer citizen complaints – Police dash cams in widespread use of years now have documented a reduction in citizen complaints. Once people understand their interaction is on video, false or exaggerated citizen complaints are reduced.
- Improved Officer performance – Research show two positive effects for police officers. First is the ability to review and critique performance in citizen encounters. Like dash cams, the supervisory and training potential of the videos is significant. Early research has documented improvement in officer professionalism as a result of the body cams.
In closing the trust gap between police and the community, transparency is key. Body cams can be a major factor in improving police transparency. The improvement in community relations is well worth the cost.
I teach criminal law and procedure, and some of my students go on to work as police officers. I impress upon my students whether they are citizens who will never work in the criminal justice system or those that will become law enforcement officers, that the U.S. Constitution is their friend. Citizens should know their rights, and if police officers abide by the Constitution in carrying out their duties, their cases should be rock solid. Use of police body cameras creates a win-win situation for protecting the rights of citizens and preserving the integrity of police investigations. I view police body cameras as another tool in the tool-belt of officers for bringing about justice.
We know that eyewitness testimony is often inaccurate. While police body cameras are not in and of themselves a panacea, they can provide a piece in the puzzle for arriving at accurate decisions. The images caught on camera can be balanced, for example, with eyewitness recollections to possibly corroborate or dispel memories of witnesses.
Of course, there will be glitches. Sometimes the cameras will malfunction, be damaged during physical confrontations, not provide the whole picture and may not be turned on at crucial times. However, this is no reason not to employ them in police work. Lastly, some law enforcement authorities are opposed to the use of such cameras often arguing against them under the guise of protecting the privacy of citizens. Yet, in the name of transparency and the seeming increasing focus on negative police-citizen interactions, I recommend the use of police body cameras for the benefit of officers and citizens.
There is a considerable amount of data that suggests that the use of body worn cameras is an effective way of improving the behavior and actions of police officers and the public alike. Reductions in Response to Resistance incidents (i.e., use of force), decreases in civilian complaints, declines in civilian injuries, and reductions in injuries to officers themselves, are all net positives that have been realized after the implementation of body worn camera programs. It has been proven that the presence of recording devices has a direct impact on the conduct of those involved in most instances.
Aside from the aforementioned positives, there are also additional benefits to law enforcement that come from the use of body worn cameras. In-car cameras are generally restricted to capturing action that occurs either directly in front of the camera or in the general area. Cameras attached to the officers are able to extend the recording capacity of these systems beyond what occurs in the vicinity of a patrol vehicle. It should also be noted that recordings of any sort have been invaluable to oversight and internal review bodies that are tasked with making determinations regarding complaints made by members of the community.
It should be accepted that video recordings of police and citizen conduct is a reality that is not going to go away any time soon – and we, as a society, should not want it to. Use of recording technology has shed light into issues concerning policing in a manner that we have not seen before, thus reinvigorating long overdue conversations around police reform. But video has also been a resource in disproving false allegations of misconduct against members of the law enforcement community thereby protecting their personal and professional lives. It is in society’s best interest that we embrace this “new normal” and find a way to make it work for the benefit of everyone.
The lightweight cameras add little in terms of the weight patrol officers already carry on them. They present no physical danger to the officer or a suspect (unlike many other tools on officer's duty belts). Video showing the officer's perspective is invaluable for investigating accusations made by citizens against police as well as criminal complaints. There are myriad ways to use the data gained from officers' body-worn cameras to better understand and improve the nature of police-citizen interactions, police use of force, citizen disrespect of police, and the police sub-culture.
There are, however, serious financial, organizational, and ethical issues for citizens and policymakers to consider when deciding whether to don police with body-worn cameras. The costs of purchasing and maintaining the camera hardware and computer software and of storing video data and redacting private details are often too much for already stretched municipal budgets. There may be contractual, management, and disciplinary procedures that need to be clarified with regards to the use of camera evidence, especially if a collective bargaining unit is representing a department’s personnel. There are also ethical questions that need to be answered concerning citizens’ privacy and public records requests.
These challenges are not unprecedented. For example, departments can look to the use of dashboard cameras in police cars to create assist in making policies for the use of body-worn cameras and how to handle their artifacts. The key to dealing with many of the issues inherent in accepting a body-worn camera program, including whether there is a need for such a program, is to engage a variety of community stakeholders.
I personally know police officers that have purchased their own cameras to wear. They realize the symbolic impact of the camera and believe that having camera footage of their interactions with citizens is more likely to prevent them from getting into trouble, much more than it is to reflect poorly on them.
For these reasons, police departments whose constituencies are asking them to consider adding body-worn cameras to their uniforms should do what they can to devise a plan for doing so. As in many changes to the police work environment, it may not come easily, but in the end, the increase in police legitimacy and learning that can come from a body-worn camera program will be worth it.
Police body cameras have strong oversight potential, they can provide greater transparency, and are a win-win because they can help protect the public against police misconduct while also helping protect the police against false accusations of abuse. In an era of mistrust and lack of confidence in the police among some residents, body cameras may improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
Yet going from theory to practice is not so straightforward. Police body cameras raise a host of thorny issues, from questions about privacy interests and fair trial rights for those who are recorded to challenges and costs associated with storing, managing and sharing digital evidence. Case in point is the recent deadly shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by a police officer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Concerns about transparency collided with the practical realities police officers face during an investigation. Many demanded immediate access to the video yet hasty release, the police warned, could compromise the investigation.
I could argue my position on the details of body camera policy — like, for example, that officers should not be able to review their own footage before providing statements or that officers should not be allowed to edit on the fly, choosing which encounters to record and which not to record — but I prefer to use my remaining space to make a larger point. My larger point is that we desperately need to temper the perception that police body cameras are the cure-all or magic bullet to ending police misconduct. This perception rests, in part, on an assumption that video footage “can’t lie” and that it provides an objective, unquestionable reality of what transpired during a police-citizen interaction. Experience tells us this is not always the case. Videos rarely tell you everything you need to know. Images may be blurry. Sound is often missing. The start time of recording is not always ideal. What you end up with is grave disappointment if the video footage does not tell a clean or definitive story. Case in point once again is the shooting in Charlotte — the videos do not clearly show whether Scott was armed and missing from the beginning of the footage released by police is sound.
Body cameras should not be touted as the saving grace; rather, they should be considered one piece in a larger puzzle that collectively provides the totality of evidence. Other puzzle pieces, including physical evidence, eyewitness testimony, and police statements, continue to remain critical for determining the who, what, where, when and why in any situation.
Moving forward it is imperative that stakeholders — legislators, police officers, civil liberties groups, and others — hammer out policies that address many of the complex questions raised by police body cameras. But in the meantime, we must all take a step back and recognize that body cameras are not a police misconduct panacea. Even more importantly, our current fixation with this technology should not eclipse other critical efforts at reform, efforts that focus on more preventative measures such as reforming departmental policies related to the use of force as well as training police officers better.
After a spate of high-profile police shootings, numerous policymakers and organizations have called for widespread criminal justice reform including increased transparency and accountability in policing. Among those reforms has been the push for local police departments to implement police-body worn cameras because the footage from these cameras provides an objective account of what occurred during the encounter. Limited studies show that police-worn body cameras can have an impact on police use of force and citizens’ complaints; and citizens often comport themselves differently when their actions are captured on tape. The footage from body-worn cameras is an invaluable training tool and even for instances that do not involve uses of force, footage can alert supervisors to conduct unbecoming of an officer or can use a positive interaction as a training tool.
Body-worn cameras can also play an essential role in increasing transparency in policing. A lack of transparency in policing fuels the distrust that many communities members have when it comes to believing an individual officer’s version of an encounter or a department’s ability to fairly investigate an allegation of police misconduct. The recent unrest in Charlotte, North Carolina after the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott is a stark reminder of the importance the community places on transparency in policing.
The federal government has earmarked over $70 million to assist local police departments to purchase cameras and train their officers to use them, and even though only a third of police departments currently have them, their use will undoubtedly increase over the next few years. Notwithstanding the potential benefits of police body-worn cameras, before a department implements the use of these cameras, policymakers must develop clear guidelines governing not only the use of the cameras, but the circumstances under which footage will be released. Policy makers must strike a delicate balance between the need for privacy of those depicted in the footage, the integrity of an investigation, and the need for the public to know whether and to what extent police officers are engaged in unconstitutional practices. Indefinitely withholding footage of matters within the public interest, such as police-related shootings is directly at odds with promoting a culture of democratic policing. Finally, any guidelines for the use of these cameras should be developed in consultation with communities. Since the federal government is playing a large role in outfitting local departments, it would be appropriate to condition such funding with national standards to regulate their use.
Finally, it is important to note that body–worn police cameras are not a panacea for police accountability. Although these cameras can provide an objective view of police-citizen encounters, they are but one tool in the Swiss army knife approach that policy makers must take with respect to policy accountability. In addition to increased transparency that the cameras may provide, police departments should continue to infuse other methods of transparency and accountability into the culture of these agencies such as (1) collecting statistical information to determine insidious patterns of disparate treatment (the race and gender of those stopped, searched, requested to consent to search, and arrested); (2) implementing specialized training (procedural justice training, de-escalation techniques, and proper uses of force); and (3) when officers are deemed to have violated departmental regulations (which may or may not be captured on video) the police department must ensure that proper supervision, retraining or disciplinary action is promptly forthcoming.
Such concerns deal with confidentiality, privacy concerns and regulations detailing officer’s ability to view recordings before writing reports, as well as the proper use of recordings. Community and local governments still need to fully understand the costs of implementing the new technology to include purchasing, maintenance, training and data retention. Some states will need to take a deeper look at how their freedom of information act policies are written if they want to ensure all and any privacy concerns are met.
It cannot be denied that video recordings of contacts enables police departments the ability to deliver timely, accurate and appropriate training in order to maximize safety for officers and community members.
In order for any and all policies to work, officers must be held accountable if they fail to activate their cameras during all interactions with the public. This becomes extremely more relevant during critical incidents dealing with police involved shootings, serious bodily harm and use of force.
Community members have come to believe that the use of body-worn cameras imbues the process with greater transparency, making police officers become more accountable. This has the added benefit of effectively distinguishing between disingenuous and frivolous concerns and possible training opportunities or disciplinary actions.
All in all, the advent of the technology presents a greater benefit to police departments and the community outweighing some privacy concerns.
As long as oversight agencies and police departments keep track of all interactions, violations to policy and ensure that all procedures are adhered to, the use of body-worn cameras will surely enhance the level of transparency our communities and law enforcement departments deserve.
Body-worn cameras (bodycams) have become the hottest tool that many communities demand, and police departments are turning to, in response to issues of police misconduct and questionable officer-involved shootings. Many departments that have deployed such cameras have seen a significant reduction in use of force incidents and police misconduct complaints, the theory being that everyone behaves better when they know they’re on camera.
Yet, the question remains as to whether body cams have been successful in increasing transparency and legitimacy of the law enforcement agencies where they are being used. The answer is that the devil is in the details.
Communities that are considering purchasing bodycams must establish protocols for a wide range of thorny issues:
- What types of incidents require mandatory recording and when do officers have discretion to turn video recorders off?
- Are officers allowed to review video recordings before completing reports and/or being interviewed (particularly in shooting cases in which interviews should take place soon after the incident)?
- When and how will the videos be released to the public?
- Will tapes be redacted to protect the privacy and/or identity of those caught on camera who were not involved in the police incident, minors, confidential witnesses, and victims of crime?
The Tulsa community did not erupt in spite of the horrific shooting displayed in the videos (footage from a video from a police helicopter as well as a bodycam). In Tulsa there was full transparency and accountability — the officer was indicted for manslaughter. In Charlotte, the police department delayed release of the bodycam videos, rumors spread about the facts of the shooting, and anger and distrust resulted in days of inflamed protests. Transparency made all the difference.
Police departments must have mandatory requirements for video-taping and must hold officers accountable for failing to comply, as many cities are finding that officers turn off bodycams during encounters that may be volatile. Failure to record can also result in community distrust.
The issue of allowing officers to view videos before writing reports and responding to questions in subsequent interviews is also an important one. It is crucial that the officer relay his/her recollection of the incident in reporting, in interviews, and later when testifying in court. Watching a video can change the officer’s perception of the event and can undermine the integrity of the officer’s statements in the report and later testimony.
In my opinion, body-worn cameras are an important tool for increasing legitimacy in law enforcement as long as strict procedures are established, and there is transparency in releasing, and accountability in enforcement.
Body worn cameras offer the opportunity for the police to not only regain public trust but also to encourage transparency. In several recent studies, body camera use was associated with a 60% reduction in officer use of force and an 88% reduction in citizen complaints against the police. Body-worn cameras have helped to clarify disputes and complaints against officers. In many respects, body cameras can protect the officer and the public. Cameras can also be used for evidence documentation in court proceedings and for training officers.
Likely the most mentioned criticism of body cameras is the issue of privacy. On this point, the officer has some discretion regarding whether the cameras should be turned on. For general everyday interaction with citizens where no crime in involved, it may not be a necessity to turn on the camera. Certainly when the officer is involved with crime or suspicious behavior it is necessary to have the camera recording.
In general, the majority of police officers agree with the use of body cameras for increased positive interactions with the community and for their own protection. Future research will tell the final tale of their success.
The emergence of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) had been a slow and uncommon process for several years. Indeed, police in the United Kingdom began deliberate examination and deployment of BWCs at least by 2006, and a number of Canadian law enforcement agencies were exploring BWCs by 2009. In the United States, smaller law enforcement agencies had begun slowly and quietly adopting BWCs without much fanfare. By 2014, following the events in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, public outcry about police-community relations saw the emergence of BWCs as a solution for police transparency and accountability. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has established strong support for police adoption of BWCs, through the establishment of the BWC Policy and Implementation Program (PIP).
While there are some legitimate concerns about potential negative outcomes from the adoption of BWCs (e.g., privacy concerns), I posit that, in sum, BWCs are more beneficial for law enforcement than not. Most arguments favorable toward implementing BWCs speak their perceived value to police accountability and transparency. While studies have shown evidence in support of these assertions, BWCs are not a panacea for all ails of police-community relations, transparency and accountability for law enforcement across the United States. Research has shown a variety of BWC benefits, including, but not limited to officer complaints, resistance against police and prosecution outcomes. While these are important indicators to the value of BWCs, there is yet untapped potential to police departments.
Reducing complaints, improving cooperation and minimizing officer resistance are all positive outcomes for police departments, and their executives and officers. However, this does not mean they tell the whole story about the potential benefit to police departments, and their officers and executives. Ongoing research is looking at the potential advantages of BWCs in conducting internal investigations and officer training. The process of internal investigations, particularly those involving use of force and officer-involved shootings (OIS), may benefit from BWCs, not just through improved transparency, but also in the quality of the investigation itself. Critical review of BWC footage (both audio and visual) might improve the likelihood of determining the appropriateness of an event, the speed at which a determination can be made and tactical officer training opportunities. For example, BWC footage of an officer-involved shooting event naturally provides opportunity to improve transparency, but may also offer more efficient and effective determination of the nature of the OIS event, and in determining disposition. Further, a critical review may provide substantive re-training of involved officers, and/or in the training of new officers. The use of BWC footage for internal department training of new officers may be one of the most important benefits of the adoption and use of BWCs to police departments and their executives. Use of BWCs in training offers opportunities to indoctrinate new officers in activation compliance (important to trustworthy transparency and accountability), and to use real-world scenarios in the training of new police recruits.
There is evidence that the presence of police body cameras can influence police-citizen encounters. For example, Jennings, Lynch and Fridell (2015) analyzed data from the Orlando police department regarding the impact of body cameras on response to resistance incidents and external complaints filed by citizens against police officers. The researchers revealed a 53.4% reduction in the prevalence of response to resistance incidents, along with a 65.4% reduction in citizen complaints filed against Orlando police officers (Jennings et al., 2015).
Another study conducted in Mesa, Arizona found that officers who wore body cameras were less likely to perform stop and frisks and make arrest; however, they were more likely to initiate encounters with citizens (encounters not categorized as stop and frisks), and issue citations (Ready and Young, 2015).
In contrast, a study conducted in the Phoenix Police Department found that officers who wore body cameras conducted more arrests, but experienced a decrease in the number of complaints filed against them by citizens (Katz, Choate, Ready and Nuno, 2014). In addition, officers who wore body cameras were less likely to have complaints filed against them result in a “sustained” outcome compared to the complaints of officers that did not wear body cameras.
Similar research findings were uncovered in Rialto, California where the number of citizen complaints against police officers and use of force incidents decreased for officers wearing body cameras (Ariel, Farrar and Sutherland, 2014). This study also revealed that body cameras did not have a negative impact on the frequency of police-citizen contacts.
More recently, researchers found that police worn body cameras can impact incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV). Specifically, IPV cases where officers were wearing body cameras were more likely to result in arrest, have charges filed against abusers, result in guilty pleas, and result in guilty verdicts at trial, when compared to IPV cases where officers did not wear body cameras (Morrow, Katz, Choate, 2016).
There is also some evidence that police personnel support the use of body cameras. Orlando police officers reported that they were open to the use of body cameras as they believe that the presence of cameras will improve their behavior, behavior of their fellow officers, and citizens’ behavior (Jennings, Fridell, and Lynch, 2014). Other research found that officers believe that body cameras would be helpful in documenting criminal cases, and increase positive resolution of citizens’ complaints filed against them (Fouche, 2014). Gaub, Choate, Todak, Katz and White (2016) compared officers’ perceptions of body worn cameras in three police agencies (Spokane (WA) Police Department, Tempe (AZ) Police Department, and Phoenix (AZ) Police Department). They found that officers in the Tempe Police Department had the most positive perceptions of body cameras, while Phoenix officers had the most negative perceptions. Perceptions of officers working in Spokane, WA landed somewhere between the Tempe and Phoenix police departments (Gaub et al., 2016). The researchers also studied officer perceptions within the three police agencies over time. They found that officers’ perceptions with regard to the use of body cameras in all three agencies improved over time.
Researchers have given the least amount of attention to citizen perceptions of body cameras, and how body cameras influence (if at all) citizens’ perceptions of the police. Recently, Culhane, Boman, and Schweitzer (2016) conducted a study that examined public support for the use of body cameras by the police, as well as citizens’ perceptions of the justifiability of police involved shootings captured by body worn cameras. The first part of the study was conducted prior to the shooting in Ferguson Missouri, while the second part of the study was conducted after the shooting in Ferguson. This study found that citizens were favorable toward the idea that officers should be required to wear body cameras before the Ferguson shooting, and were even more favorable of this idea when asked again after the Ferguson shooting. Additional research is needed to better understand how citizens perceive police body cameras, and the extent to which police body cameras influence citizens’ perceptions of the police.
In conclusion, there is a growing body of research to support the assertion that body cameras can be an effective tool for the oversight and accountability of police officers in the United States.
Providing objective evidence for investigations and trials. Video footage generally provides a factfinder with a more objective account to use in resolving discrepancies between an officer’s version and the versions of civilians. This objectivity would ostensibly result in more accurate findings and efficient investigations for both officers and civilians alike. Rather than making a credibility determination between an officer and a civilian in instances of conflicting accounts, video technology can potentially reveal instances of police misconduct, as well as exonerate officers who have been falsely accused of misconduct.
Reducing Rates of Police Misconduct and Citizen Complaints. Furthermore, research shows that people tend to adhere to social norms and behave better if they are aware that their conduct is being recorded. Nobody wants to be the aggressor on camera. Knowing that there will be video footage of police encounters has proven that both officers and citizens may respond differently during police-civilian interactions. For example, a Rialto, California, study demonstrated that patrol officer shifts without cameras experienced twice as many incidents of use of force as shifts with BWCs. By the same token, research shows that civilians also behave differently if they are aware that their actions are being recorded. This awareness affects the psyches of officers and civilians alike, discouraging civilians from aggressive behavior and deterring officers from using excessive or unnecessary force. In effect, BWCs can aid in improving interactions between police and the public, thereby lowering the rate of police misconduct and citizen complaints.
What is usually forgotten is that audio can be just as important as video in evaluating a police-civilian encounter. In order to effectively evaluate the actions of an officer and a citizen, it may be important to know what was said during a police-civilian interaction. Audio would be significant in evaluating the number and succession of shots fired during an officer-involved shooting, whether a civilian complied with officer instructions, or whether a civilian was the victim of discourtesy or the use of offensive language.
Improved Resolution of Civilian Complaints. Video footage also assists in resolving citizen complaints in a timelier manner and a more effective way. CCRB data shows that the presence of video evidence and independent verification decreases the number of unsubstantiated cases, and can assist in exonerating officers who are the subject of frivolous claims.
Improve police training and practice. Video from body cameras can be very useful as a teaching tool for officers. The footage of real-life police-civilian encounters can be used to train officers in de-escalation tactics, courtesy, and proper interactions. In this way, training for new cadets, refresher courses for veteran officers, and retraining efforts will be greatly enhanced.
Thoroughly eradicating unnecessary or excessive use of force is unlikely, but properly used body-worn cameras are potentially very valuable tools in achieving a reduction in problematic police-civilian encounters. While privacy and policy concerns require careful consideration, the benefits of body-worn camera deployment undoubtedly far outweigh the negatives and should be the future of policing in this nation.
The cameras are great when it comes to most complaints against Officers and their conduct with citizens. The complaints are usually taken care of quickly with a review of the video and have been shown to clear the Officers on most complaints. The videos can also be used to review for report writing, recording victim’s and suspect’s statements, incident scene documentation, shown in court, training and other reasons.
The issues with the cameras can be that they do not always show everything on a police action. They only record what is in front of them and not the whole scene. Sometimes, with the quick response from Officers or due to malfunctions, the cameras don’t get turned on, and this can raise questions about why the cameras were not being used. The cameras also don’t reflect the Officers’ emotion at the time of an incident. The audio may reflect the Officers tone, but not their fear or real emotion to the incident.
Overall, I feel the pros outweigh the cons and support Officers wearing cameras with the right policies. The cameras most likely will be of a greater good than not when it comes to Law Enforcement actions. The key thing to remember is that the body-worn cameras are just another tool for Law Enforcement and to be used as such, not as a constant nanny watching over Officers.
First, BWCs provide objective documentation of incidents as they happen from a perspective close to that of the officer. This objectivity is helpful in at least two ways: in the prosecution of crimes and in resolving citizen complaints. The BWC footage provides evidence for each of those purposes. In a study of the Newport News, Va., BWC pilot project, nine out of 10 DUI defendants plead guilty when it is revealed to them that the arresting officer was recording the incident. As a result, time and taxpayer dollars are saved, and the police officer is back on the street protecting his or her community.
Second, BWCs seem to have the ability to check the tempers of both police and the citizens with whom they interact. In a randomized, controlled study of the Rialto, California, police department, “officers wearing the cameras had 87.5 percent fewer incidents of use of force and 59 percent fewer complaints than the officers not wearing the cameras.” In other words, being recorded raises self-awareness in both the individual police officer and the people he or she interacts. This is good for everyone. And these findings are confirmed by the Cambridge University study cited in your article.
Yes, as with all new technology, a number of ethical and technical issues exist, including concerns for privacy, free speech and assembly rights, workplace rights, and camera function and policy compliance. To be clear, BWCs are not the panacea of better relationships between the police and the communities they serve. There are still concerns about implementation, policies and appropriate procedures. However, with appropriate stakeholder input, agreement on police action, and open communication, these concerns can be managed.
BWCs will improve police transparency and accountability, restore public trust, and despite their limitations, support officer and public safety. The cameras' inherent objectivity will clarify for police administration whether or not an officer should be disciplined for or absolved of a citizen complaint, and will help solve crimes and prosecute criminals. It is incumbent upon both the police and the public to solve ethical questions and technical problems satisfactorily. The body cameras, even with their risks and uncertainties, are a step toward accountability, transparency, and safety for all.
Police Should Not Wear Body Cameras / Jury’s Still Out
- "What we’ve seen play out with body-worn cameras suggests that they present a false sense of both transparency and verity – myths that appear to have taken hold in the public conscience. On the transparency front, body cameras only enhance transparency when the footage is shared with the public. As we have seen in high profile cases across the country, the prompt release of footage of police shootings of citizens is the exception, not the rule. And on the verity front, public demand for the release of footage implies that it will illuminate the actual facts of the event – and we know that’s not the case either."
Nancy G. La Vigne, PhD // Director of the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center
- "This question goes to more than transparency and community trust because body cameras alone will not transform a department into one of high public trust. The foundations of that trust lie in community interaction, participation and understanding. ... Ultimately, making deposits in the emotional and trust bank account with the citizenry should come before or in conjunction with financial expenditures on technology."
Max Geron // Acting Division Commander, Dallas (TX) Police Department
On the transparency front, body cameras only enhance transparency when the footage is shared with the public. As we have seen in high profile cases across the country, the prompt release of footage of police shootings of citizens is the exception, not the rule. And on the verity front, public demand for release of footage implies that it will illuminate the actual facts of the event – and we know that’s not the case either.
The police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC, illustrates both of these points. City leaders hid behind a recently passed (and not yet enacted) North Carolina statute stipulating that body camera footage is not a public record, using that as reason to withhold the footage and only recently releasing it in the face of mounting pressure from the public and influentials.
Yet once released, the public was left scratching their heads, as the footage did nothing to illuminate what actually transpired. That’s because body cameras only capture a certain perspective (that of the officer). Add to that the fact that officers have the discretion to turn the cameras on and off, making the technology at risk of missing important context that precedes the event of interest. Crucial evidence is missing in the police shooting because one of the officers failed to activate his body camera equipment until more than 40 seconds into the encounter. The lapse is a violation of department policy and contributes to the lack of transparency surrounding Scott’s death. (Wesley Lowery)
Like much technology, we often believe it’s more powerful than it is – the so-called CSI Effect. This notion makes the public all the more interested in seeing the “facts” as presented by what’s captured on camera, and makes policies around transparency and public release all the more important.
The problem with body cameras is that they’ve been deployed so rapidly that public policy is still playing catch up. Before equipping police with body cameras, policies should be in place about when the cameras should be turned on and when and why footage will be released or withheld. States have begun to develop these policies but more work remains, and until those policies are in place, insisting officers wear body cameras runs the risk of creating more controversy than it alleviates.
Chances are that police commanders will find that the cost of body cameras themselves are less of an issue than storage of the media, accessing the footage and the costs associated with bandwidth. Commanders will also need to address changes in their business processes for dealing with digital media and the eventual electronic filing of all criminal cases. This move from hand carried paper documents and evidence will mean considerable process changes for many agencies. The Michael Morton Act has, among other things, pushed prosecutors to require all evidence be presented upon the filing of the case to avoid accusations of prosecutorial misconduct or failing to release evidence to the defense on discovery. Storing, maintaining and tendering appropriately are not an insignificant undertaking or expenditure, especially for larger agencies. Making sure those items of evidence are accessible when needed and not “lost” or irretrievable is imperative for successful prosecution and for upholding public trust. One might think that adoption of a body camera system would preclude inadvertent deletion of footage but Oakland PD recently found that not to be true when it discovered a technician mistakenly deleted about 25% of all of its stored footage.
There are obvious intangible costs for not investing in body cameras. A police commander has to make sure that justifications for choosing not to adopt body cams are sound and that the community has a say in that decision as well. When a controversial use of force incident or complaint about police procedures or treatment happens, that is not the time for departments to begin outlining their reasoning for not having body cameras. Open and frank discussions with citizens about financial costs and to establish reasonable expectations about what a body camera system will do for a department need to occur. In addition to implicit bias and procedural justice training, police commanders need to be educated on issues of cognition related to viewing footage and forming opinions. A recent study highlights that viewing footage in slow motion affects how the viewer perceives intent upon the parties in the video – potentially altering the perceived reality of those involved.
Ultimately, making deposits in the emotional and trust bank account with the citizenry should come before or in conjunction with financial expenditures on technology.
Image: solar22 / iStock.
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