In the early 2010s, law enforcement agencies in the United States began adopting body-worn cameras (BWC), and in 2012, the police department in Rialto, California, became the first law enforcement agency nationwide to have a BWC program rigorously evaluated.
In the decade since, calls for widespread adoption of the technology have followed many high-profile police killings. Today, almost half of law enforcement agencies in the United States use BWCs, and seven states mandate their use. Even federal law enforcement agencies and departments of correction have begun using BWC.
To investigate if the increasing implementation of the technology matches how it has been used, we analyze whether BWCs are meeting their purposes and what policymakers can do to take further steps toward those goals.
Why law enforcement agencies use BWCs
Proposed uses of body-worn cameras include documenting evidence, strengthening police transparency and accountability, preventing and resolving community complaints, training officers, improving community and officer behavior, and providing the police perspective on events. Below, we assess the implementation and effectiveness of each of these proposed uses.
- Documenting evidence. Body-worn cameras allow officers to record events and statements from witnesses and victims. According to a survey of prosecutors (PDF), over 90 percent of prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions with BWCs have used BWC evidence to prosecute community members, and 8.3 percent of offices have used it to prosecute police officers.
- Strengthening police transparency and accountability. Body-worn cameras are often marketed as a tool to improve public accountability because they provide true accounts of events through recordings. Findings on the impact of BWCs on police use of force have been mixed; some studies note reductions in use of force while others find no impacts. BWCs can increase transparency because the Freedom of Information Act ensures that images recorded are subject to public access. But retention, release, and redaction policies vary by state and agency. All but three states have legislation in place excluding police records from public records requests in some circumstances. Policies and laws around when to activate the BWCs can also vary by state and agency, and low activation rates can offset the potential benefits of BWCs. Some advocacy groups have raised concerns that BWCs could hamper accountability if officers are allowed to review footage before making statements.
- Preventing and resolving complaints. Law enforcement agencies can leverage BWC footage against complaints. Two studies—in Phoenix, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada—indicate that BWC presence has reduced the number of complaints from community members.
- Training officers. Although officer training was not an originally intended purposes of body-worn cameras, many departments have found footage of actual officer interactions with community members useful.
- Improving community and officer behavior. Body-worn cameras were believed to improve officer and community member behavior (PDF) by promoting civil interactions; rational choice, routine activity, and deterrence theories posit that a person’s knowledge of being surveilled deters crime and increases safety and security. But existing research has not found such an impact.
- Providing the police perspective of events. Police interactions with the public are often recorded by bystanders using cell phones or other surveillance systems, whereas BWC footage can show officers’ perspectives. But BWC footage can be difficult to follow, and some research indicates that attitudes toward police may influence interpretations of footage, particularly when officer accounts don’t align with footage.
Although surveillance isn’t a primary purpose of BWCs, the technology does offer a form of community surveillance. A growing body of research has demonstrated the negative consequences of surveillance in the public sphere, including violations of reasonable expectations of privacy (PDF), a chilling effect on public discourse and life, and avoidance of systems (e.g., education, medical care) where surveillance is anticipated. As a result, BWCs tend to increase monitoring of already heavily surveilled communities, particularly overpoliced communities of color.
Questions for policymakers when considering BWCs
Policymakers and agency leadership hoping to implement BWCs can make more informed decisions by reviewing legislation, policies, and practice to ensure a match between a BWC program’s goals, purpose, and use. The following questions can help policymakers understand the impact of policy and practice on the goals and purpose of BWCs.
- When are officers activating their cameras? Are officers expected to have cameras active at all times or only when interacting with community members? Are there circumstances when officers don’t have to activate cameras or are not allowed to activate cameras? Are there consequences for not having a camera activated when it should be?
- Who holds the footage? Is the law enforcement agency or an external body responsible for monitoring and oversight?
- Who has access to footage and in what circumstances? Is it available only to law enforcement leadership or do staff have access to footage as well? Is footage available to prosecutors or defense attorneys? Do external complaint/oversight agencies have independent access? Can footage be made available to the people in the footage, their families, attorneys, or the public on request? Do the rules around access align with privacy concerns and state laws?
- How long are recordings stored? Does the content of a recording impact the length of time it is stored for?
- How often are recordings reviewed and for what purpose? Are they reviewed on an as-needed basis or routinely? Are recordings reviewed to monitor officer behavior or for evidentiary gathering purposes? Are officers’ routine tasks monitored or only specific interactions? When there is a complaint, does the officer provide their perspective of the interaction before or after reviewing the footage?
Every decision about policy and practice influences how BWCs are used and whether those uses align with the stated goals of the programs. For policymakers and agencies to ensure thoughtful use of BWCs, they must thoroughly investigate these questions.
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.