The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 18, 2015

Do body cameras create more problems than they solve?

August 18, 2015

The “silver bullet” of police body-worn cameras is rapidly tarnishing. That’s the upshot of Urban’s recent virtual debate surrounding camera deployment and use. While the wide array of experts—from police executives to researchers and civil libertarians—generally agreed that the technology has the potential to increase accountability, transparency, and community trust, the overall theme of the discussion was one of caution.

Cameras alone won’t increase community trust—they are just one component of a larger community policing philosophy and practice.

Spokane, WA, police chief Frank Straub called for us to “rethink how we approach the fundamentals of providing police services to our communities.” He credits his agency’s recent efforts to train officers in de-escalation tactics and procedurally justice interactions with residents, in concert with camera deployment, with a 22 percent reduction in use of force incidents.  

Michael Davis, Northeastern University’s director of public safety, made a similar argument, calling for efforts to build “mutual understanding of perspectives and collectively working to address the underlying causal conditions that lead to crime.”

Both Straub and Urban researcher Dan Lawrence cited the need for research on community reactions to cameras, work that is currently underway in several jurisdictions. But Lawrence cautioned that “the accelerated adoption of this new tool has drastically narrowed the opportunity for research to inform practice before being displaced by anecdotes, assumptions, and soon to be entrenched ‘conventional wisdom.’”

There are a whole host of challenges associated with video footage interpretation, redaction, and dissemination.

Urban’s Dave McClure noted several ways in which video can misrepresent the facts. Brian Buchner, head of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, countered that cameras are “an entirely objective witness”: it’s humans who are apt to misinterpret footage.

An even thornier issue is the question of who has access to video and at what point in time. Our debate coincided with the news that New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton opposed an inspector general’s recommendation that officers be prohibited from viewing footage of incidents in which they were involved prior to giving formal statements to investigators. Straub sided with Bratton on this point, while Cato Institute’s Matthew Feeney objected strenuously, finding the practice “misguided” because it gives officers an opportunity to search for reasonable suspicion.

Backing this perspective, he cited a survey of police chiefs, a meaningful share of whom responded that “it is better for an officer’s statement to reflect what he or she perceived during the event, rather than what the camera footage revealed.”

Lawrence proposed a reasonable compromise: institute a two-part reporting process that requires officers to make a first statement based on memory and providing them with the opportunity to make a second statement after reviewing the footage.

When it comes to releasing footage, police agencies still have full discretion—so who really stands to benefit from body-worn cameras?

One issue that we didn’t explore in depth: Despite the fact that cameras were introduced to hold officers accountable, it’s still up to police agencies whether and when to release footage following high-profile incidents.

While authorities were quick to release video associated with the indictment of Ray Tensing in his fatal shooting of unarmed Samuel DeBose, that isn’t always the case. This inconsistent access to camera footage suggests that police stand to benefit the most from body cameras, as opposed to citizens. Civilian oversight entities are a viable solution to this imbalance, many of which have issued recommendations on body-worn camera implementation and use.

The issues surrounding body-worn cameras are challenging indeed. While this debate provided some excellent strategies and solutions, much work remains in developing policies that enhance cameras’ abilities to yield their intended impacts while minimizing the unintended ones.

Urban’s Mathew Lynch summarized it well: body cameras are not the “end all” solution but likely a piece of the “totality of initiatives” necessary to enhance police accountability and build community trust.

Displayed are a body-worn cameras being used as part of a Philadelphia Police pilot project in the department's 22nd District, Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

SHARE THIS PAGE

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.