Evaluating the Evidence on Officer Body-Worn Cameras

August 4, 2014

Former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” This quote depicts the current discussion around the impact and effectiveness of officer body-worn cameras. A lot of opinions exist, both in favor and against the technology, but a breadth of empirical evidence does not.

While communities across the country have begun using the technology, few balanced discussions of body-worn cameras and even fewer empirical studies of the technology in the field exist. I set out to research the issue and develop a single comprehensive resource to help law enforcement agencies understand factors they should consider to make informed decisions regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras.

The limited available research provides insights into several key areas required to successfully manage a body-worn camera program. The highlights of these insights include:

  • Civilizing Effect: Most of the empirical studies document a reduction in citizen complaints against the police and, in some cases, similar reductions in use of force and assaults on officers. However, the behavior dynamics that explain these patterns remains unclear. Do the cameras change officer behavior, citizen behavior, or both? The reduction in citizen complaints may also be explained by changes in citizen reporting patterns (e.g., less likely to file frivolous complaints). Nevertheless, the evidence suggesting a civilizing effect is promising.
  • Evidentiary Benefits: The available research offers credible support for the evidentiary benefits of body-worn camera technology. Body-worn cameras create a real-time, permanent record of what transpires during a police-citizen encounter. This video is useful for police, citizens and prosecutors.
  • Logistical, Resource and Stakeholder Commitment: Adopting body-worn camera technology requires a substantial commitment by the law enforcement agency. Before camera deployment, considerable groundwork must be completed including selecting a vendor, overcoming officer and union objections, addressing data storage requirements and developing administrative policy to govern a wide-range of issues (e.g., when to turn the cameras on and off, when supervisors can review video and how the department will handle public and media requests for camera footage such as video redaction).

Though the evidence is limited, body-worn camera systems also hold great promise as a training tool for law enforcement, both in the academy and as part of performance evaluation. Post hoc review of officer or cadet behavior during recorded encounters can serve as a mechanism for positive feedback, identify problems in officer behavior and lead to the identification of best practices in handling critical incidents such as de-escalation.

Discussion of the technology’s drawbacks often center on potential violations of citizen privacy, officers’ concerns regarding unsolicited supervisor review of video, union concerns about changes to officer working conditions and cost and resource requirements. Review of the available evidence suggests these drawbacks merit further analysis, as there are serious questions regarding these impact and consequences for law enforcement agencies.

Simply put, there is not enough evidence to offer a definitive recommendation regarding the adoption of body-worn cameras by police. Departments considering body-worn cameras should proceed with caution and recognize that most of the claims made about the technology by advocates and critics are untested.

Read the full document entitled "Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence" and review its findings here.