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Police Body Cameras: Are BWC Programs Working?

Crimes, accidents and life-saving efforts are being caught on camera – providing a first-person view of what law enforcement professionals encounter every day.

From responding to building explosions and mass shootings to making arrests and questioning witnesses, body cameras are capturing some of the most horrific and shocking incidents – and their video footage is being shared on national news and used as evidence.

While body worn camera (BWC) adoption by local law enforcement is increasing nationwide, there is no definitive number on how many officers in the U.S. wear body cameras today. According to a report produced by The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil and human rights special interest group, 62 of the country’s major city departments had BWC programs as of November 2017.

A 2015 report funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security indicated more than 90% of police departments surveyed reported having BWC programs in place or planned on implementing a program in the near future.

Police Body Cameras: How are They Being Used?

According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, video and audio recordings from BWCs can be used for multiple reasons including documentation of statements, observations, behaviors and other evidence. Examples of their use include:

Mixed Results: What are BWC Programs Accomplishing?

Are body cameras making a difference?

A 2017 study performed by the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department revealed surprising results: wearing a body camera did not increase or decrease use of force or citizen complaints. The study involved more than 2,200 police officers, with half wearing cameras for about seven months, according to the New York Times.

“I think we’re surprised by the result. I think a lot of people were suggesting that the body-worn cameras would change behavior,” said Chief of Police Peter Newsham in a 2017 interview with National Public Radio (NPR). “There was no indication that the cameras changed behavior at all.”

The study contradicts other experiments that documented positive results.

For example, a 2017 study funded by National Institute of Justice revealed complaints of misconduct and use of force incidents decreased among offers who wore body cameras. The experiment was conducted over 12 months with 400 officers with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Unlike other recent studies, this study also revealed measurable ROI.

The pilot program “helped save the Las Vegas Metro Police Department millions of dollars,” according to the National Institute of Justice.

The Next Step: Are Results Enough for Additional Implementation?

Proponents argue more body cameras will provide oversight, accountability and ultimately deter police officers from engaging in “abusive of unprofessional behavior,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Opponents believe that the technology is outpacing policy, privacy is a major concern, and that taxpayers are taking on the burden of paying for such programs.

Michael White, who has studied BWC programs in Arizona and Washington, says the results call into question of cost versus benefit. “I think a big part of the answer to that question is going to come from what the police department and the community want to accomplish with the rollout of body-worn cameras,” White said in an interview with NPR.

The Future of Police Body Cameras: Why More Research is Needed

The National Institute of Justice states that more research is needed for law enforcement officials to determine if and how to implement body cameras.

“Because technology is advancing faster than policy, it’s important that we keep having discussions about what these new tools mean for us. We have to ask ourselves the hard questions. What do these technologies mean for constitutional policing? We have to keep debating the advantages and disadvantages. If we embrace this new technology, we have to make sure that we are using it to help us do our jobs better,” according to Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police Department Police Commissioner, as stated in a 2013 Office of Community Oriented Policing Services report.

As studies have shown, the impact on police-citizen behavior vary. Additional research may be able to shed light on what metrics are considered effective as well as what results indicate success. More research is expected to be released soon as more police departments implement fully operational and pilot BCW programs around the country.

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