A fairly common recommendation for reducing police misconduct is to increase use of body cameras. By recording police-citizen encounters, police supervisors, judges, reporters, and others can get objective evidence of what happened instead of self-serving hearsay.
The proposal is gaining popularity, but it is also more complicated than most people realize. First, there are privacy concerns for persons who do not want their police encounters on the evening news or splashed across social media. Second, the costs involved in maintaining a body camera system are not insignificant. Those costs have to be weighed against other police needs and other reform measures.
Do police body cameras improve police behavior?
The short answer is that it is too early to tell. However, the results from the several studies on police body cameras are encouraging.
One of the most cited police body camera studies was conducted in Rialto, California between February 2012 and February 2013. During the trial, 54 front line officers were randomly assigned to either wear body cameras or to not wear the cameras while on shift. Of the 988 shifts examined by researchers, officers wore body cameras in 489 and did not in 499. Researchers compared the number of use-of-force incidents and complaints against police in the trial period to previous years. The results, based on data from the trial, are below.
At first glance, it might be tempting to correlate the reduction in use-of-force incidents and complaints against the police with the introduction of body cameras. But, it is important to keep in mind that the Rialto trial began in February 2012; only a month after a new chief took over the department. The new chief, William A. Farrar, was one of the authors of the Rialto study and he implemented several reforms after starting his new job. Thus, it is difficult to determine now much of the decline in use-of-force incidents and complaints can be directly attributed to the police body cameras. The Rialto study also cannot explain whether the drop in use-of-force incidents and complaints can be attributed to police or citizens changing their behavior. As the researchers wrote, “we do not know on which party in an encounter the cameras have had an effect on, or how the two effects — on officers and on suspects — interact.”
While it is the case that police body cameras cannot conclusively be shown to improve citizen or police behavior this is not in and of itself an argument against the use of police body cameras. Body camera footage has proved valuable in investigations into police misconduct.
What are the privacy implications of body cameras?
Police body cameras raise privacy concerns. The indiscriminate release of body camera footage could have a devastating effect on the victims of crime. Those crafting police body camera policy have to effectively balance privacy with the desire to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
What does such a policy look like? Legislators, law enforcement organizations, and civil liberty groups have all made police body camera recommendations. However, some police departments that use body cameras either do not have policies in place or do not release them.
In October 2014 the ACLU asked twenty of the largest police departments as well as 10 departments that attended a body camera conference hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) for their body camera policies. According to the ACLU’s Sonia Roubini, “Only five of these thirty departments sent me their policies. The remaining twenty-five cited various reasons for not doing so.” Of those five departments only one had its police body camera policy available online.
It is especially important that body camera policies be public because the nature of a police officer’s job means that he will often see citizens at tragic and embarrassing moments. There is an understandable concern related to the release of footage involving not only victims of crime but also children, accidents, and the inside of private residences, hospitals, and schools.
Lawmakers across the U.S. have responded to privacy concerns in a variety of ways. In North Dakota the governor signed a bill exempting police body camera footage “taken in a private place” from public record requests, while in Florida and Michigan lawmakers introduced bills which would limit the release of police body camera footage captured inside a citizen’s home. Florida’s bill, SB 248, would also limit the release of footage captured within “health care, mental health care, or social services” facilities as well as “at the scene of a medical emergency involving a death or involving an injury that requires transport to a medical facility.” Proposed New Hampshire legislation would require police officers to wear body cameras, but would exempt the footage from public record requests.
Civil liberty groups and non-profits have also made body camera policy proposals. Police Executive Research Forum published a paper on implementing a police body camera policy, which recommended that some recordings should be prohibited. Among the recordings PERF recommended prohibiting are those of strips searches, conversations with informants, and those that take place “where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.”
An ACLU paper said that the release of body camera footage should depend on whether the footage is “flagged” or “unflagged.” Flagged footage would include footage that captures use-of-force incidents, arrests, detentions, or an incident subject to a complaint. Unflagged footage would be footage that does not include the “flagged” incidents just described.
The paper recommends that unflagged footage be deleted after weeks, and that unflagged and unredacted footage should not be released without the consent of the subject. Flagged footage should be available to the public even in cases when redaction is not possible “because in such cases the need for oversight generally outweighs the privacy interests at stake.”
The storing and redaction of body camera footage is a time consuming as well as expensive undertaking. During the time of a police body camera study in Mesa, Arizona, three police body camera videos were forwarded to the Mesa Police Department Video Services Unit. The videos, which ranged from one to two hours long, took a total of 30.5 hours to edit for redaction.1
In May 2015 the Associated Press reported that Cleveland expected to spend at least half a million dollars a year simply to store, maintain, and replace the body cameras. The AP also reported that the combined cost of 1,500 Taser body cameras and the data storage could be up to $3.3 million over five years. The Albany Democrat-Herald reported that body camera footage storage was affecting the court system in Linn County, Oregon. The body cameras being used by two police agencies in the county have significantly contributed to the amount of data being stored by the Linn County District Attorney’s office, which in 2011 had 45 gigabytes of media downloads, compared with 351 gigabytes of downloaded evidence in the first three months of 2015.
Improvements in technology will undoubtedly make the redaction and storage of police body camera footage less expensive. But, for the foreseeable future, the redaction and storage of police body camera footage will continue to impose a significant cost to law enforcement agencies. Indeed, cost is sometimes cited by police agencies as a reason why body cameras have not been deployed. In 2014 PERF conducted a survey of police departments and found that “39 percent of the respondents that do not use body-worn cameras cited cost as a primary reason.”
It is possible that some of the fiscal impact of police body camera footage redaction and storage could be offset by the impact the cameras have on litigation arising from bogus complaints. However, it remains to be seen if that will be the case.
Of course the cost of a police body camera policy will depend in part on what footage is redacted. As noted above, redaction contributes to the cost of body camera programs. A policy that strictly limits redaction of footage captured in public and redacts some material filmed inside a private residence would be less expensive (all else being equal) than a policy that requires a heavy degree of redaction of footage captured in public.
What does the increased use of body cameras mean for American policing?
It is still too soon to tell. As mentioned above, it is not yet clear what effect, if any, body cameras have on citizens or police officers. In addition, it is the case that instances of police misconduct have occurred despite the officers involved wearing body cameras. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that police officers have been caught behaving poorly in front of dash cams.
But, the use of police body cameras is supported across political and racial demographics, as the following graphs based on April 2015 YouGov polling show:2
In the coming years an increasing number of Americans will come to expect that their police officers be equipped with body cameras. Advances in technology will make this expectation more pronounced as the cost of using police body cameras decreases.
While police body cameras do have potential to improve law enforcement accountability and provide extra evidence, they are not a police misconduct panacea. Reducing incidents of police misconduct requires not only body cameras, but also reforms of use-of-force policy and training as well as changes to how police misconduct is investigated.
- The research on police body cameras is limited but encouraging.
- Police body cameras do pose privacy concerns, but those concerns can be resolved with the right policies in place.
- The public widely supports police officers wearing body cameras, but the technology alone is not a panacea for police misconduct.
Barak Ariel, William A. Farrar, Alex Sutherland, “The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology, November 2014, doi: http://10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3 http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10940-014-9236-3.
Jay Stanley, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All – version 2.0,” ACLU. March 2015. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/assets/police_body-mounted_cameras-v2.pdf.
Lindsay Miller, Jessica Toliver, and Police Executive Research Forum. 2014. Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
Michael D. White, 2014. Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. https://www.ojpdiagnosticcenter.org/sites/default/files/spotlight/download/Police%20Officer%20Body-Worn%20Cameras.pdf.
Prepared by Matthew Feeney
1 MPD (Mesa Police Department). 2013 On Officer Body Camera System: Program Evaluation and Recommendations (interim report). Mesa, AZ: Mesa Police Department.
2 Peter Moore, “Overwhelming support for police body cameras,” YouGov. May 7, 2015. https://today.yougov.com/news/2015/05/07/body-cams/.