• Kevin Botros

Body-worn cameras: Substantive, distractive or both?

A police officer with a body camera speaking to a woman. Image courtesy of https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/20/upshot/a-big-test-of-police-body-cameras-defies-expectations.html

Police Body-Worn Cameras (PBCs) are implemented with various policy goals, but most prominently, they are used to reduce police misconduct and police brutality. Currently, seven states have mandated statewide use of PBCs by law enforcement: Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Carolina. Considering the increasing number of police departments that have implemented PBCs, it is important to ask whether PBCs have resulted in substantive remedies to police brutality, or if they have been a distraction from major criminal justice reform.

A randomized, controlled study (Yokum) evaluated the effects of PBCs based on documented uses of force and civilian complaints. Yokum’s study suggests that implementation would probably not lead to “dramatic reductions in the use of force or complaints, or other large-scale shifts in police behavior, solely from the deployment of this technology.” Further, based on the limited and preliminary administrative court data, the study suggests that while PBCs may have a great effect on specific policing scenarios, it is not clear whether PBCs can be expected to produce large, department-wide improvements in outcomes. Furthermore, another issue that has stalled progress from using PBCs is when the cameras are not activated when they need to be. A potential fix to this problem could be a “auto-triggering” function that can automatically turn on an officer’s camera when they exit a vehicle, draw a weapon, or get within proximity of a civilian. However, even if the camera is activated, it only provides one angle of a civilian encounter.

In another study (Ariel), researchers tested the effect of PBCs on incidents of use-of-force and citizens’ complaints against the police in a randomized-controlled field-trial in Rialto, California. Ariel’s study suggests that PBCs can reduce the prevalence of use-of-force by the police, as well as the prevalence of citizen complaints against the police. Specifically, the study notes that it observed nearly ten times more citizen complaints in the 12-months leading up to the experiment, compared to any of the three years prior. Based on the study’s experiment, research suggests that PBCs may be of real practical significance to police-public interactions in terms of experiencing fewer incidents of use-of-force.

PBCs are newly implemented equipment that require more data and further research. Almost every research study, including Yokum’s and Ariel’s, will point out that their data is not conclusive and requires further analysis in order to identify the effects of PBCs on police conduct and citizen complaints. While the data results are mixed, there is certainly evidence that PBCs can have a positive impact. However, a reasonable takeaway from these studies is that PBCs are not strong enough on their own to expect major developments in reducing police misconduct and citizen complaints. PBCs can play a role within criminal justice reform policies, but they should only be looked at as one piece of the puzzle. Perspectives that PBCs, on their own, can bring about major changes are likely to be distractive from the substantive changes advocated in major criminal justice reform policies.