Police body cameras were initially heralded as a landmark in policing: as a way to not only monitor law enforcement officers but also to provide an additional, unbiased account of what took place during officer-civilian interactions.
But this presumes that — in a day and age when a person can be tracked through a myriad of monitoring technology — a person behaves differently when he or she knows they are being recorded. Or are there other benefits derived from creating body worn camera programs that are equally as beneficial?
- The latest research on body-worn cameras
- What we know from the research and what we don't know
- The importance of good policy for achieving positive outcomes
- Analysis of 129 BWC policies covering a range of issues.
Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): Dr. White, you’ve done a lot of research about Body Worn Cameras. How has the research — and the resulting findings — evolved over the years?
Dr. Michael White: The early research on body-worn cameras (BWCs) was defined by two themes. First, the early studies focused primarily on the impact of BWCs on use of force by officers and citizen complaints against officers. Second, the early studies documented fairly large declines in those outcomes after BWC deployment. The first published study came out of Rialto, California and the authors documented huge declines in use of force and citizen complaints following BWC deployment. Researchers then moved quickly to test whether the Rialto findings were “lightning in a bottle,” or whether they could be replicated in other jurisdictions.
The body of research on BWCs has grown rapidly over the last 5 years, and over that time, the evidence on the impact of BWCs on use of force has become increasingly mixed. Not every study shows that BWCs lead to reductions in force. Half of published studies have documented a notable decline in use of force after BWC deployment (8 of 16). The other half show no effect. My team and I have created an Outcome Directory to summarize the results of the studies testing the impact of BWCs on use of force.
Most published studies do show an impact on citizen complaints. We also created an Outcome Directory for these studies. Our Directory shows that 22 studies have tested the impact of BWCs on citizen complaints against officers. Seventeen of those 22 studies have documented a notable or statistically significant decline in complaints following BWC deployment.
The next step for researchers is to explore why the impact of BWCs varies across jurisdictions. In addition to the continuing focus on force and complaints, researchers have also begun to explore a more diverse set of outcomes related to BWCs, including citizen perceptions, officer perceptions, evidentiary value (e.g., impact on prosecutorial outcomes), and cost. We need more research in these other areas.
Seventeen of 22 studies have documented
a notable or statistically significant decline in complaints
following BWC deployment.
JCH: How common are body-worn cameras among law enforcement agencies?
Mike: The short answer is “we don’t know.” There are around 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States and there is currently no definitive source of information on this question. The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) added BWC questions to their 2016 LEMAS survey, which is a national survey of police departments in the US administered every 3-5 years. Those results will be released later this year. But those results will not account for agencies that have deployed BWCs after 2016. Right now, the best guess is about one-half of law enforcement agencies have deployed BWCs to at least some of their officers (approximately 9,000 agencies). We do know that BWCs are more common among larger agencies compared to small ones.
…The best guess is about one-half of law enforcement agencies
have deployed BWCs to at least some of their officers
(approximately 9,000 agencies).
JCH: You've talked about how “Good policy translates into good practice.” Can you expand on this?
Mike: Five decades of police research has consistently documented the importance of administrative policy for guiding police officer decision-making and their use of discretion. Policy matters, and it matters across a diverse array of police decisions including use of less-lethal force, use of deadly force, auto and foot pursuits, and arrest decisions. Good policy is detailed and clear; understood by the officers; and enforced. Officers understand what is expected of them, what is prohibited, and if they violate policy, they know they will have to answer for that policy violation.
This body of police research serves as a foundation for understanding the importance of BWC policy. Use of BWCs is a police officer decision, like any other decision. A BWC policy serves as a guide to those decisions. It conveys information to officers on key issues such as activation, de-activation, citizen notification, officer authority to review footage, and supervisor authority to review footage.
An example will demonstrate this point. We have developed a robust policy review process for law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding for BWCs through BJA’s Policy and Implementation Program. I will describe this process in greater detail in my upcoming webinar. We have developed a Policy Review Scorecard to serve as the centerpiece of the review process. The Scorecard, which is grounded in the larger evidence base on administrative policy, rates the comprehensiveness of a BWC policy across 41 specific issues in 11 general areas. Agencies must pass this policy review process before they can access their federal funds. The premise here is that any good BWC program must start with a detailed, comprehensive BWC policy. Simply put, good BWC policy leads to good BWC practice.
[Citizens] liked the idea of police wearing cameras,
they thought BWCs would lead to better policing,
and they thought BWCs would positively impact
police and citizen behavior.
JCH: You’ve done a tremendous amount of research over the years in this arena. Can you share some of your more interesting findings?
Mike: The results of my research in Spokane (WA) and Tempe (AZ) produced several interesting findings. In both jurisdictions, my team conducted phone interviews with hundreds of citizens who had BWC-recorded encounters with police. These were folks who had something bad happen to them, the police responded, and the officer(s) recorded the encounter. We conducted the citizen phone interviews within 1-4 weeks of their recorded encounter. This was the first time anyone had interviewed citizens who had been recorded during an actual police encounter.
Three interesting findings emerged from the citizen phone interviews. First, citizens in both jurisdictions conveyed strong support for police BWCs. They liked the idea of police wearing cameras, they thought BWCs would lead to better policing, and they thought BWCs would positively impact police and citizen behavior. I was surprised by this finding, given that the citizens we interviewed had a recent formal encounter with police.
Second, about 75% of citizens we interviewed in both jurisdictions did not know they were recorded on a BWC during their police encounter. Either the officer did not notify the citizen of the BWC, or the officer did notify and the citizen did not hear or understand the advisement (or the citizen forgot). Bottom line: most citizens were unaware of the BWC.
Third, we sought to explore the intersection of these two findings: positive attitudes about BWCs generally and lack of awareness of being recorded. In Tempe, there was no difference in attitudes about BWCs among those who were aware and unaware of the BWC during their encounter. Awareness of the BWC did not affect general BWC perceptions.
In Spokane, we took this a step further. We compared perceptions of procedural justice among those who were aware of the BWC and those who were not aware. We found that citizens who were aware of the BWC rated their encounter as more procedurally just, compared to those who were not aware. This finding suggests that the very presence of the BWC during an encounter has the potential to make citizens “feel better” about how they are treated by police. Click here for more information on our citizen perception work in Spokane.
JCH: So often body-worn cameras are seen as a “silver bullet:” as a way to solve an agency’s problems. What are some of the most important things an agency should consider before implementing their body worn camera program?
Mike: The first thing an agency should do is answer the “why” question. Why do you want to adopt BWCs? What goals are you trying to accomplish? The program goals should drive planning and implementation of a BWC program. Another key issue involves cost, both in the short-term and long-term. BWCs represent an enormous investment in resources, financial and otherwise. An agency must have a long-term plan to deal with these costs.
There are a host of other issues to consider as well. As part of my work with BJA’s BWC Policy and Implementation Program, we developed a Law Enforcement Implementation Checklist to help agencies with these issues. This Checklist is intended to serve as a roadmap that takes agencies from point A to point Z with BWC program planning and implementation. If you are just getting started, take a look at the Checklist.