Good and Bad: Impact of Police Body-Worn Cameras is Limited

Examining the Pros and Cons of Police Bodycams

As police use of body-worn cameras increases rapidly, an examination of 70 studies found that while officers and citizens support the devices, they may not have had significant or consistent impact on officer behavior or on citizens’ views of the police.

The study from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University (GMU) appears in Criminology & Public Policy, a journal of the American Society of Criminology.

“Expectations and concerns surrounding body-worn cameras among police leaders and citizens have not yet been realized by and large in the ways anticipated by each,” said GMU criminologist Cynthia Lum, who led the study.

“It’s likely that body-worn cameras alone will not be an easy panacea for improving police performance, accountability, and relationships with citizens.”

A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum published last year found that more than one-third of U.S. law enforcement agencies had some or all officers wearing body-worn cameras and another 50 percent had plans to do so.

The adoption of body-worn cameras increased quickly after highly publicized incidents like the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer in 2014 and the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore police custody in 2015.

Many departments, especially smaller ones, are dropping or delaying their plans to buy cameras, finding it too expensive to store and manage the thousands of hours of footage, the Washington Post reported in January.

“The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive,” Jim Pasco of the National Fraternal Order of Police told the newspaper.

“But storing all the data that they collect — that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them.”

GMU researchers reviewed 70 empirical studies of body-worn cameras that were published globally through last June.

The studies addressed the impact of body-worn cameras on officers’ behavior and on officers’ attitudes toward body-worn cameras, the devices’ impact on citizens’ behavior, and citizens’ and communities’ attitudes toward cameras.

Some studies considered the impact of body-worn cameras on criminal investigations and on law enforcement organizations.

In general, officers seem supportive of body-worn cameras, especially as they use them more. However, the devices have not produced dramatic changes in police behavior, the study found.

Among other findings:

  • Body-worn cameras seem to reduce complaints against officers . It is unclear how much these changes reflect citizens’ reporting behaviors or improvements in officers’ behavior. It is also unclear if the devices improve citizen satisfaction with police encounters, as might be expected if the cameras affected police behavior substantially.
  • Wearing body-worn cameras has not led to de-policing, sometimes known as a “Ferguson effect” in which officers pull back from some of their duties. Cameras do not seem to discourage police contacts or officer-initiated activities.
  • Private citizens generally support body-worn cameras, but it’s unclear that their use improves citizens’ views of police, their behaviors toward police officers, or  their relationships with police.

“To maximize the positive impacts of body-worn cameras, we suggest more attention to
the ways and contexts—organizational and community—in which the devices are most
beneficial or harmful,”says GMU criminologist Christopher Koper, who co-authored the study.

“Attention should also be paid to how the cameras can be used in police training, management, and internal investigations to improve police performance, accountability, and legitimacy in the community.”

Improving Accountability

The study’s authors say that “improving accountability for police misconduct has been a primary motivation for advocates of body-worn cameras. Prosecutors, however, rarely bring cases against the police, and it remains to be seen whether this will change much as a result” of the cameras.

The new study notes that body-worn cameras were adopted around the U.S. without the benefit of much research. It said that “unfortunately, researchers have consistently found that police technology may not lead to the outcomes sought, and often it has unintended consequences for police officers, their organizations, and citizens.”

Lum and Koper were assisted in the study by GMU doctoral students Megan Stoltz and J. Amber Scherer.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report

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