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date: 27 November 2020

Body Cameras and Policingfree

  • Bryce Elling PetersonBryce Elling PetersonJustice Policy Center, Urban Institute
  •  and Daniel S. LawrenceDaniel S. LawrenceJustice Policy Center, Urban Institute


Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are small devices that police officers can affix to their person—in a head-, shoulder-, or chest-mounted position—that can audio and video record their interactions with community members. BWCs have received strong support from the public and, in recent years, widespread buy-in from police leadership and officers because of their ability to improve accountability and transparency and enhance the collection of evidence. Implementation guidelines recommend that officers activate their BWCs during each officer–citizen interaction and inform the people they encounter that they are being recorded. Early research on this technology found that officers equipped with body cameras were significantly less likely to engage in force and receive citizen complaints. However, more recent studies with larger samples have had mixed findings about the impact of body cameras on use of force, citizen complaints, and other police activities and behaviors.

Numerous legal and ethical considerations are associated with BWCs, including their implications for privacy concerns and public disclosure. However, police officials, policymakers, civil rights groups, and the public must continue to weigh these privacy concerns against the potential for BWCs to enhance police accountability and transparency. Future scholarship should focus on the degree to which BWCs can improve police–community relations and yield valuable evidence for both criminal cases and internal investigations.

History of Body Cameras

In the past decade, body-worn cameras (BWCs) have received significant attention as more law enforcement agencies (LEAs) equip their officers with these small devices that can record police–community interactions and other activities. The recordings are meant to support LEAs by increasing transparency within the community they serve by providing better accounts of officer and community-member behaviors, as well as by enhancing the collection of evidence that could be used in court (BJA, 2018).

Although the spread of police-equipped BWCs has been rapid in recent years, the earliest use of the technology dates back to 1997 when riot police officers in a Netherlands police agency used portable, body-mounted cameras during large public unrest events (Flight, 2017). Not until the mid-2000s did the technology advance to a point where LEAs could deploy small-scale, pilot BWC programs. These pilot programs first entered police practice in Devon and Cornwall, United Kingdom (2005); Denmark (2007); western Australia (2007); and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (2009). The technology continued advancing into more modern-day programs where BWCs were connected to secure data-management systems that standardized BWC use among the majority of line officers within an agency. These systems entered the field around 2012 when vendors improved the management systems. For example, Axon (formerly TASER International) developed its BWC-management system that worked in conjunction with its BWCs and its platform.

It was around this time that LEAs in the United States began using BWCs. American police forces began deploying BWCs in 2009–2010, most notably in cities like Oakland, California, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. The first rigorously evaluated BWC program was with officers in the Rialto, California, Police Department in February 2012 and was soon followed by Mesa, Arizona, in November 2012. By July 2013, 25 to 27% of LEAs from the United States reported using BWCs (DOJ, 2015b; Miller, Toliver, & Police Executive Research Forum, 2014). Results from a survey of 70 major city and county LEAs in 2015 found that 97% indicated they either intended to implement BWCs, were currently in the piloting phase, had recently completed a pilot but had not yet started a program, or had a full operational BWC program (Lafayette Group, 2015). This growth occurred prior to the U.S. Department of Justice’s $23 million funding of 73 LEAs in 32 states in 2015 as part of its BWC Pilot Partnership Program to assist LEAs in the development of BWC programs (DOJ, 2015a). At its three-year mark in April 2018, that program has funded more than $50 million to more than 260 LEAs that resulted in the deployment of 52,000 BWCs nationally (DOJ, 2018).

The adoption of BWCs by police in the United States was not an activity solely conducted by LEAs to improve police operations. In reality, poor police–community relations reached their peak after a series of high-profile incidents in Ferguson, Missouri; New York City; Baltimore, Maryland; and elsewhere around the country between July 2014 and April 2015. Many areas of the country responded with great civil unrest and protests, leading to social movements such as Black Lives Matter, among others. The policing field was faced with serious challenges on improving relations with community members and responding to the nation-wide outcry to hold officers accountable for their transgressions. It was also around this time that President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing submitted its final report that emphasized an urgency to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust (President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, 2015). BWCs were seen as a potential solution to these mounting issues, one that the public and early research (e.g., Ariel, Farrar, & Sutherland, 2015) strongly supported and that police departments could implement fairly quickly and easily.

Support for Body Cameras

Public Support

There is a robust history of public support for the use of BWCs in LEAs. This support is rooted in the belief that BWCs will improve transparency and accountability within LEAs while encouraging officers to be more respectful when they interact with community members. An early study on public attitudes of BWCs involved an evaluation of a BWC pilot conducted by the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary in the United Kingdom. The researchers administered questionnaires to a convenience sample of community members visiting a busy entertainment district during Friday and Saturday nights. They found that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed believed the introduction of BWCs was a “good” or “very good” idea (James & Southern, 2007).

In one of the largest studies on public support for BWCs in the United States, a group of researchers surveyed a representative sample of 635 respondents in May 2015. Survey questions included general awareness of BWCs; the potential advantages and consequences of BWCs; policy questions surrounding notification, activation, and access to recordings; respondent opinions about BWCs being used during different policing activities; and support for BWCs in other types of agencies. Survey respondents generally supported BWCs, with a large majority of respondents agreeing that police would behave more respectfully toward citizens (86%), individuals suspected of a crime (82%), and victims of a crime (79%). Further, more than 80% of the sample agreed that BWCs would reduce excessive use of force and other types of police misconduct, while 91% believed BWCs would improve transparency by providing a visual record of police–citizen encounters. Finally, nearly two-thirds of respondents believed that BWCs would improve police–community relations and result in citizens having greater trust in the police (Sousa, Miethe, & Sakiyama, 2015). However, the authors also found that the majority of respondents did not believe BWCs could help reduce racial tensions between police and minority communities—possibly because increasing transparency and alleviating racial tension are not positively correlated. For example, while releasing BWC footage of an officer shooting a minority community member may improve transparency, it could also exacerbate racial tensions (Sousa, Miethe, & Sakiyama, 2018).

In another national survey of 2,113 individuals in the United States, over 90% of the sample supported requiring police officers to wear BWCs, and over half said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to provide police officers with the technology. Notably, 81% of respondents in this survey believed BWCs would protect police and citizens equally (Ekins, 2016). Drawing a distinction between surveys of the general population and surveys of those who interact with police officers with BWCs, White, Todak, and Gaub (2017b) found that community members in Spokane, Washington, who had an encounter with a BWC-wearing police officer were also strongly supportive of these devices as a policing tool. Ninety-one percent of respondents who encountered an officer agreed that cameras should be worn by all officers. Further, when community members were aware of the BWC during the encounter, they had even greater support for the body camera and were more likely to see the officers as procedurally just (White et al., 2017b). Understanding the attitudes of individuals with direct police encounters perhaps matters more as they may affect other individuals’ feelings toward the police through vicarious experiences (Rosenbaum, Schuck, Costello, Hawkins, & Ring, 2005).

In addition to the notion that the cameras will improve transparency and accountability, public opinion also holds hope that BWCs will provide a useful tool for evidence gathering and crime reduction. In one survey, 85% of respondents agreed that BWCs would improve evidence gathering in criminal incidents (Sousa et al., 2015). James and Southern (2007) also found that more than half of the community members they surveyed believed BWCs would prevent violence and disorder from occurring, with nearly two-thirds reporting feeling safer after the local police began using BWCs.

Despite the widespread support for BWCs, there is also concern that these devices can strain police–community relationships if they only serve to benefit officers. This strain can be a particular problem in communities of color, where there are often long histories of distrust and challenged relationships with law enforcement. As evidence of this, only 36% of respondents in a national survey reported that BWCs would help to reduce racial tension between police and citizens (Sousa et al., 2015). Surveys also indicate that non-white respondents are less optimistic than white respondents about the ability for BWCs to increase transparency and trust in the police (Sousa et al., 2018). This may be because non-white community members have less positive views of the police, making them less likely to perceive the benefits of BWCs (Crow, Snyder, Crichlow, & Smykla, 2017). Further, non-white community members are more likely to have negative police contact and fear police use of force, which could contribute to their skepticism of BWC benefits (Ray, Marsh, & Powelson, 2017).

Internal Support

In contrast to high public support for BWCs, the feelings toward these devices among police administrators and officers has been mixed. One concern from police administrators is that officers equipped with BWCs will engage in less proactive activities—that is, officers will focus on responding to dispatched calls rather than initiating contact with citizens (Ready & Young, 2015). Smykla and colleagues (2016) surveyed the command staff of several local, state, and federal LEAs operating in Sunshine County, Florida, in the United States. Only half of respondents supported the use of BWCs in their agencies, while one-third opposed their use. A slight majority agreed that BWCs would assist in the collection of quality evidence, would result in an increase in guilty pleas from people charged with crimes, and would reduce unwarranted complaints against officers. However, command staff also expressed disbelief that BWCs would help officers do their job or improve their behavior during citizen interactions. In fact, a majority of respondents believed officers would be reluctant to use necessary force when they interact with citizens. Many also believed that BWCs would distract officers during emergency situations, take time away from normal duties to perform maintenance and upkeep on the cameras, and lead to more officer stress. A majority of command staff disagreed that BWCs would make officers safer, while almost half believed they would not make the public safer. Finally, nearly 60% of the command staff surveyed believed BWC footage would be used to embarrass or persecute police (Smykla, Crow, Chichlow, & Snyder, 2016).

Other research has examined the perceptions of BWCs among officers who would be and have been equipped with the devices. In a survey conducted by the Mesa Police Department, more than 80% of officers believed cameras would improve the quality of evidence, while three-fourths believed that BWC footage would aid the prosecution of domestic violence cases when the victim was unwilling to testify. Conversely, fewer than half of the officers believed BWCs would cause citizens to be more respectful (Mesa Police Department, 2013). These concerns were largely echoed by Pelfrey and Keener (2016), who found that front-line officers and supervisors at a university police agency believed BWCs would improve the quality of evidence and help with prosecution. But these officers also believed BWCs would have little impact on their own behaviors, on citizen behaviors, or on officer safety (Pelfrey & Keener, 2016).

One study examined changes in officer support across three police departments (Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, and Spokane, Washington) before and after the implementation of a BWC program. Overall, a large majority of officers in each department believed BWCs would have evidentiary value and produce more accurate accounts of incidents. However, many officers also believed BWCs would be difficult to use and expressed skepticism about their benefits, though this varied by responding agency. For example, only 41% of the officers in Phoenix, compared to 64% of officers in Tempe, believed citizens would be more cooperative because of the BWCs. Similarly, only 16% of officers in Phoenix believed the advantages of BWCs outweighed the disadvantages, while this proportion was nearly 80% in Tempe (Gaub, Choate, Todak, Katz, & White, 2016).

After implementation of the BWC programs in these three departments, there were again mixed levels of officer support. Officers in Phoenix were less supportive of BWCs after implementation of their program. They were less likely to believe BWCs have evidentiary value, have positive effects on citizen behavior, or benefit police–community relations. Conversely, officers in both Spokane and Tempe demonstrated a general improvement in their opinions of the cameras. Nearly 18% more Spokane officers believed their department should deploy BWCs to the whole department after implementation of their program. However, fewer officers believed cameras could improve citizen cooperation or officer professionalism. In Tempe, more officers agreed that BWCs made their job easier and were accepted by their coworkers, but fewer officers believed citizens would be more cooperative (Gaub et al., 2016).

Consistent with these findings, officers in Las Vegas reported becoming more comfortable with BWCs after using the devices for several months. These officers also noted that BWCs could offer protection against citizen complaints and introduce their own narrative during citizen encounters. However, the officers also remained concerned about whether supervisors would use BWC videos against them (Braga, Coldren, Sousa, Roriquez, & Alper, 2017). Similarly, officers in the Hallandale Beach, Florida, Police Department continued to be pessimistic about the usefulness of BWCs even after the department piloted a BWC program (Headley, Guerette, & Shariati, 2017), while officers from a large police department in Mesa, Arizona did not have more positive perceptions of the legitimacy of BWCs after being exposed to them (Young & Ready, 2015).

In a study of officer perceptions of BWCs in the Orlando, Florida, Police Department, Jennings, Fridell, and Lynch (2014) found that officers were overall supportive of the cameras, though they believed that the cameras would be more beneficial for improving the behavior of their fellow officers than their own behavior. For example, 43% of officers agreed that BWCs would improve the “by-the-book” behaviors of their colleagues, compared to only 20% that believed these behaviors would change in themselves. Likewise, fewer officers agreed that BWCs would reduce the number of complaints against themselves compared to the number of complaints against the department as a whole. Notably, some of the officers’ opinions varied across gender, race, age, and years of experience. For instance, a greater proportion of male officers believed BWCs would improve their own behavior, while more female officers agreed that the cameras would reduce complaints against their colleagues. Moreover, fewer older officers agreed that BWCs would reduce internal complaints against them compared to their younger counterparts. Officers with more experience were also more likely to agree that the cameras would increase their own likelihood of behaving “by the book.”

Guidelines for Implementing a BWC Program

Despite their relative newness as a policing tool, there are a number of publications and resources available to LEAs that provide guidance on how to implement a BWC program. One of the most widely referenced publications on BWC deployment is Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned, created by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF, 2014). Importantly, PERF recommends that police agencies must develop a comprehensive, written policy prior to implementing a BWC program. These policies must provide clear and specific guidance to officers about when and where to use their cameras, yet allow for flexibility as the program evolves and make revisions to the policy as necessary.

PERF also provided a comprehensive list of 33 recommendations agencies should follow when developing their own BWC program. These recommendations focus on general program development and implementation, recording protocols, download and storage policies, recorded data access and review, training policies, and evaluation. For example, PERF recommends that officers be required to activate their BWC during each law enforcement encounter while the officer is on duty, with the exception of crime victims and witnesses who prefer not to be recorded. PERF also recommends that officers inform the people they encounter that they are being recorded, unless it is unsafe to do so. Several of PERF’s recommendations focus on ways to improve transparency and accountability. They recommend that LEAs specify how long recorded data must be retained and implement measures to prevent data tampering. And if officers fail to turn on their camera when required to do so by departmental policy, they must provide a detailed explanation on camera or in writing.

Through its BWC Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) program, the Bureau of Justice Assistance has created numerous resources for agencies implementing BWCs. One resource is the BWC Toolkit, which is a national clearinghouse that compiles and translates key information on BWCs for LEAs and other stakeholders. The toolkit also provides a seven-step checklist for BWC implementation: (1) learn the fundamentals, (2) develop a plan, (3) form working groups and identify collaboration opportunities, (4) define policies and key protocols, (5) define technology solution, (6) communicate and educate stakeholders, and (7) execute phase rollout/implementation.

In addition to the toolkit, the BWC TTA program created a Policy Review Scorecard that assesses the comprehensiveness of a department’s BWC policy and identifies areas for improvement. The scorecard rates the comprehensiveness of an LEA’s BWC policy by confirming language on certain topics was included in the policy but is not prescriptive. By identifying components of the policy that received a low score, the scorecard provides LEAs with guidance on how to revise and enhance their policies. Agencies completing the scorecard are asked questions about how they developed their policy (e.g., whether they followed best practice guidelines or involve external and community stakeholders), as well as what is included in their policy regarding video activation and deactivation, data transfer and download, data storage and retention, video footage viewing and reviewing, training, public release, and program evaluation. LEAs that receive federal funding must score an 80% or higher (including 17/17 on mandatory items) to pass the process and access their funding.

Several advocacy organizations and watchdog groups have also produced recommendations that aim to ensure that BWC programs do not infringe on the rights and liberties of the public. For example, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a model act that state legislatures could adopt to regulate the use of BWCs. Among other provisions, the act requires officers to notify subjects when they are recording and ask for permission before recording in a private residence, recording a victim, or recording a witness who chooses to remain anonymous (American Civil Liberties Union, 2017). Similarly, a report from the Constitution Project urges law enforcement to use BWCs only for narrowly defined purposes, limit the number of videos that are retained for long periods of time, ensure appropriate public release of footage, and require proper training for all officers using BWCs (Constitution Project, 2016).

Discussion of the Literature

Effectiveness of BWCs

Multiple theories have been posited on how BWCs may impact officer behaviors, community-member behaviors, and their interactions. Most prominent is the argument of a “civilizing effect”—that individuals involved in a police–community interaction will behave in a calmer and more socially desirable manner when they are aware of being on camera or recorded (Katz, Kurtenbach, Choate, & White, 2015; White, 2014). This may apply to both the officers, who might be more likely to adhere to departmental policies and be more willing to engage community-members in a professional manner, as well as the community members, who may be more cooperative and less combative.

The underlying theories of this concept are well established. Self-awareness theory has been applied to explain the intrinsic effects as a result of an officer and/or community member’s awareness of the BWC and, more specifically, that they are under recorded observation. The theory states that this knowledge makes individuals more likely to focus their attention inward on themselves, evaluate and compare their current behavior, and thus cooperate more with social norms, rules, and laws (Duval & Wicklund, 1972). This is directly applicable to officers with BWCs who know when their camera is recording and, as a result, may believe they will be negatively affected if they do not meet societal standards or department procedures.

Deterrence theory has also been applied to explain the extrinsic effects that BWCs may produce. The theory suggests that the opportunities for a crime are reduced when the would-be offender believes that the cost of committing the crime outweighs its benefits (Gibbs, 1975; Zimring & Hawkins, 1973). Officers and community members may believe that the likelihood of apprehension and celerity of punishment increase as a result of the digital evidence captured by a BWC and, as such, alter their behaviors to reduce the potential punishment. Ariel, Sutherland, Henstock, Young, and Sosinski (2018) introduced the concept of the “deterrence spectrum,” whereby the ability of BWCs to deter inappropriate uses of force or other undesirable officer behaviors is linked to discretion. That is, BWCs will have a minimal deterrent effect when officers have broad discretion around activating their cameras, while deterrence is maximized when officers have limited discretion (Ariel et al., 2018).

When applying these theories to community members, it is crucial that they notice the BWC, recognize it, and believe that they are being recorded. Otherwise, the BWC may not have the expected effect on their behaviors as they may not be aware that their actions are being recorded (Farrar & Ariel, 2013). Prior to the use of BWCs, the “real estate” left on an officer’s body was already sparse, as officers are equipped with many tools and devices. Therefore, it is perhaps not surprising that community members may not notice the addition of a small BWC. Preliminary studies have found that community members tend not to notice the BWC on the officer, especially among officers who recently started wearing the cameras as part of a new program. For example, in a small randomized controlled trial (RCT) of 60 officers, only 28% of community members surveyed (n = 321) within one month after a police interaction correctly remembered whether the officer was wearing a BWC (McClure et al., 2017). White et al. (2017b) surveyed 249 Spokane residents on whether their encounter was recorded using a similar methodology and found that only 28% accurately reported “yes.” Because of this, recent efforts have focused on officers advising community members that their interaction is being recorded at the beginning of the interaction.

These theories suggest that police and community members may exhibit more socially desirable or civilized behaviors in their interactions as a result of BWCs provoking self-awareness and feelings to increase their punishment and hinder their rewards. To better ascertain how BWCs impact these interactions and the behaviors of both officers and community members, early studies primarily focused on officer use of force and citizen complaints; overall, the outcomes associated with BWCs have be somewhat limited (Cubitt, Lesic, Myers, & Corry, 2017). The following examines the literature by outcome and details the effectiveness BWCs have on police-community interactions, behaviors, and policing operations.

Use of Force

As a result of the original promises of BWCs, specifically that the cameras will elicit self-awareness within the officers, many early scholars examined changes in officers’ uses of force. Use of force is typically defined as any application of physical restraint on the force continuum beyond handcuffing in order to gain control of a suspect or situation (Ariel et al., 2016b). In one of the earliest studies in the United States, shifts of officers from Rialto, California, were randomly assigned to have all officers wear a BWC or to have officers continue without a camera (Ariel et al., 2015; Farrar & Ariel, 2013). Findings indicated that shifts without BWCs experienced twice as many use-of-force incidents than those with BWCs. Follow-up analyses of use of force in Rialto show that the drop in use of force was sustained for four years after BWCs were deployed in the department (Sutherland, Ariel, Farrar, & De Anda, 2017). These results received notable media and scholarly attention; however, it is worth noting that a new police chief was appointed in 2011, the year prior to the BWC deployment, who instituted numerous policy changes to improve the department’s standing with community members. As a result, it is not clear whether the large decrease in use of force events was the result of BWCs or other recent policy changes (or both).

Notably, findings from other early studies contradicted the Rialto results. In a study of the Denver Police Department, Ariel (2016) found no difference in the aggregate levels of use of force between a district where officers received BWCs and five comparison districts. Similarly, a study by the Edmonton Police Service in Canada found that the provision of BWCs had no discernable effect on use of force by the patrol units and beat teams it equipped with body cameras (Edmonton Police Service, 2015).

In more recent and robust studies, the impact of BWCs on use of force remains unclear. A 12.5% reduction of use of force incidents was found in favor of officers with BWCs in a RCT with 416 officers from the Las Vegas Police Department (Braga et al., 2017) and the Orlando, Florida, police department saw an 8.4% reduction among BWC-equipped officers compared to a 3.4% among the control group (Jennings, Fridell, Lynch, Jetelina, & Gonzalez, 2017). Conversely, results from RCTs with roughly 2,000 officers in Washington, DC (Yokum, Ravishankar, & Coppock, 2017) and 504 officers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Peterson, Yu, La Vigne, & Lawrence, 2018), found that BWCs had no impact on officers’ use of force. A study of officers in Spokane found that officers randomly selected to receive BWCs demonstrated a slight—bust statistically insignificant—decrease in use of force during the five-month study period (0.91 to 0.84 incidents per month), followed by an increase in the five months after the study ended (0.84 to 1.18 incidents per month).

Ariel et al. (2016a) conducted a multisite analysis that aggregated results from 10 RCTs where shifts were randomly assigned to have BWCs on the officers. They found that BWCs, on average, had no effect on recorded incidents of police use of force. The authors noted that rates of use of force decreased in some sites and increased in others but showed no impact overall. To examine these results further, Ariel et al. (2016b) categorized the 10 departments according to the officers’ compliance with the experimental groupings. They found that use of force decreased in line with expectations in departments where officers wore the BWCs as designed by the experiment. No effect was found in the departments where the officers from both the treatment and control groups were allowed to use their full discretion as to when to wear the BWCs. And finally, use of force increased for officers who applied discretion during treatment conditions only and did not use the BWC when in the control condition, as directed by the protocol. The authors advise that the selective use of BWCs among this third group is likely a consequence of situations where officer or community member aggression is already escalating.

A RCT with 46 officers in Birmingham, United Kingdom, found that, overall, the odds of use of force for officers equipped with BWCs was 50% lower compared to their controls, but this effect was only significant when the definition of use of force did not include compliant handcuffing—when handcuffs are used as part of arrests procedures, not as a use-of-force mechanism (Henstock & Ariel, 2017). The authors argue that this distinction is important as officers have to log a use of force whenever handcuffs are used even though physical force was not part of the interaction.

Assaults on Officers

Complementary to the research on use of force, one might expect similar patterns to occur on assaults and aggressions against officers. When a community member assaults an officer, the officer will respond with an appropriate use of force; when an officer applies force, a community member may instinctively respond aggressively and assault the officer. Ariel et al.’s (2016a) multisite analysis found the rate of assaults against officers per 1,000 arrests was 14% higher when BWCs were present. This finding is counterintuitive, considering the literature on decreased use of force as a result of BWCs. However, the authors note that the effects where assaults increased came from 2 of the 10 departments, and the results were nonsignificant once those departments were removed. More recent studies found no relation on this outcome. The Washington, DC, RCT with over 2,000 officers found that BWCs had no impact on an aggregated measure of assaults on police officers, nor individual measures of felony and misdemeanor assaults (Yokum et al., 2017). And a RCT of 149 officers in Spokane, Washington, also found no relationship between BWCs and officer injuries (White, Gaub, & Todak, 2018).

Citizen Complaints

Citizen complaints can provide another metric to assess changes in officers’ behaviors as a result of wearing a BWC. Such complaints are most often associated with non-physical officer misconduct, such as grievances that the officers did not do their duties, were disrespectful or rude, or were too aggressive during the interaction. Complaints have been used in a number of ways as a proxy to measure and assess aspects of legitimacy and various types of justice-related outcomes; the reduction of complaints are often a major goal of policing operations (Liederbach, Boyd, Taylor, & Kawucha, 2008). Because of this, many studies have focused on this metric when evaluating BWCs.

Early studies reported large reductions in citizen complaints. This included a 40% reduction among officers with head cameras in Plymouth, England (Goodall, 2007); a 23% decline in Phoenix, Arizona (Katz, Choate, Ready, & Nuño, 2014); a nearly 90% decrease in Rialto, California (Ariel et al., 2015); a 65% reduction in Orlando, Florida (Jennings, Lynch, & Fridell, 2015), and a 11.5% reduction on the Isle of Wight, United Kingdom (Ellis, Jenkins, & Smith, 2015). More recent and rigorous studies have found similar patterns for complaints, although this is not the case across the board. Results from Las Vegas found significant differences in favor of BWCs on the number of officers with at least one complaint between the treatment and control groups over the pre-intervention and intervention periods (Braga et al., 2017). Similarly, a multisite RCT with 10 agencies and almost 1,850 officers found a 93% reduction in complaint incidences (Ariel et al., 2017). BWC-equipped officers in Milwaukee saw a 50% reduction in the number of officers with one or more complaints compared to their controls and across pre- and postintervention time periods (Peterson et al., 2018).

In a large RCT on BWCs, 814 officers received BWCs and 1,246 remained as controls in London from May 2014 to April 2015 (Owens & Finn, 2018). Results from this study found that officers without a BWC were 2.55 times more likely to receive an allegation of oppressive behavior than officers with a BWC. The random assignment occurred at the level of emergency response teams within 10 of the city’s 32 distinct boroughs. Notably, the impact of BWCs on complaints varied across the boroughs; six had a lower rate of complaints per officer on average, and the difference was only significant within only two of these boroughs.

In the largest RCT on BWCs to date, researchers randomly assigned and staggered BWC deployment among 1,189 officers from the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department, while another 1,035 officers were assigned to the control group during an 11-month period from 2015 to 2016 (Yokum et al., 2017). This study reported no significant findings on total complaints, sustained complaints, not-sustained complaints, and complaints with a finding of insufficient facts.

A common issue with using complaints as an outcome is that the rate of complaints per number of total community interactions is usually low. For instance, results from the greater metropolitan area of London found that 6 of the 10 boroughs in the study had lower rates of complaints for officers with BWCs, but differences were only significant for 2 of the boroughs and non-significant when data where combined due to the small number of complaints recorded during the study period (Grossmith et al., 2015). The Rialto study reported an 87.5% reduction in the total number of complaints from the 12 months prior to BWC deployment compared to the number of complaints during the study period; however, the raw numbers changed from 24 in those 12 months to 3 during the study (Ariel et al., 2015). And citywide complaints dropped by 5.3% in Arlington, Texas, during the study period in 2015–2016, but researchers found that overall complaints increased by 4.1% when cases where the officer wore a BWC were removed. This suggests that the BWC-equipped officers lead this citywide decrease in complaints (PERF, 2017). In Spokane, Washington, complaints declined by 78% for the BWC-equipped officers and 50% for the control group officers after they received BWCs; however, those declines corresponded to 9 complaints to 2 for the treatment group, and 6 complaints to 3 for the control group (White et al., 2018). Small changes in the raw counts of complaints can lead to large percentage changes.

Proactive Activities

An early concern of equipping BWCs on officers was that officers would reduce self-initiated community contacts. Officers commonly reported that they expected that willingness to respond to calls for service or conduct proactive policing activities would be negatively impacted by the use of BWCs (Jennings et al., 2014). Results are mixed. In Mesa, Arizona, BWC-equipped officers were less likely to conduct stop-and-frisks but more likely to initiate community encounters and give citations (Ready & Young, 2015). Results from an evaluation of Milwaukee officers found that officers equipped with a BWC engaged in significantly more proactive activities than the control group, although the difference in the amount of these activities was very small (Peterson, Lawrence, & Yu, 2017). This was not uniform across different types of proactive activities as Milwaukee officers with BWCs conducted 8% fewer subject stops than their controls across pre- and postintervention time periods (Peterson et al., 2018).

On the other hand, Grossmith et al. (2015) found no difference in the number of stops or self-reported officer behaviors in how stops were conducted between the BWC and business-as-usual groups. Similar non-significant results were found in Las Vegas on the monthly counts of response to dispatched calls for service, officer-initiated calls, and call events that involved a crime (Braga et al., 2017). A study on the impact of BWCs in Spokane, Washington, on officer response times, time at the scene, and self-initiated calls found that BWCs had no impact on response times and time at the scene but did lead to an increase in self-initiated activities (Wallace, White, Gaub, & Todak, 2018).


Results from studies that have focused on how BWCs may affect officers’ discretion in making arrests are mixed. In more simple analyses, such as bivariate relations or models without many controls, arrest rates have been found to increase among officers with BWCs; however, this relationship changes once more complex models are used. For example, articles covering a Mesa, Arizona, study with 100 line officers in 2012–2013 found that officers without a BWC made 6.9% more misdemeanor and felony arrests than officers assigned a BWC. However, this relationship was no longer significant once control variables were included, such as officer demographics, presence of community members and officers, decisions made by the lead officer, and other study criteria (Ready & Young, 2015; Young & Ready, 2018). Similar results were found in a study conducted in Phoenix, Arizona, where 56 BWCs were assigned to officers in a target area during all shifts and days for 15 months from 2013 to 2014 (Hedberg, Katz, & Choate, 2016; Katz et al., 2014, 2015; Morrow, Katz, & Choate, 2016). In earlier publications from this study, the researchers reported that arrest rates of officers with BWCs increased by 42.6%, while the comparison group officers’ average daily arrests only rose by 14.9%. But more recent multivariate analyses found that BWCs did not significantly predict whether or not an arrest was made after controlling for whether the event was for a violent, drug, property, traffic offense, or traffic stop and the quarter in which the event occurred (Hedberg et al., 2016).

The RCT with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department found officers with a BWC increased their monthly count of call events with arrests by 5.2% compared to the control officers (Braga et al., 2017). However, this analysis only controlled for the group and period, similar to the bivariate analyses with similar results in the Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona, studies. In the Washington, DC study (Yokum et al., 2017), the researchers focused on arrests associated with disorderly conducts, simple assaults, and traffic violations, as department officials reported that officers responding to these types of events exercise greater discretion on making an arrest. Simple regressions controlling for crime rates and the officer’s gender, race, and tenure resulted in non-significant relations between arrest rates and officers with BWCs.

Results in the United Kingdom are similarly mixed on the relationship between BWCs and arrests. Aggregated results on the proportion of arrests for violent crimes from the RCT in the Metropolitan Police Service found no significant difference among officers with BWCs and those without (Grossmith et al., 2015). The authors did find, however, that when the data were separated out by police borough, BWC-equipped officers from three boroughs had higher arrest rates than their controls, but only one of these differences was significant. Furthermore, more robust models that included controls on the borough, crime types, number of suspects, number of victims, previous convictions of the suspect, and the relationships between the suspect and victim resulted in non-significant differences between the BWC group and its control on the rate of arrests for violent crimes.


Assessments on whether the benefits of BWCs outweigh the relatively high costs associated with their use have generally supported implementation of a BWC program. The costs of a BWC program are many: hardware costs related to the cameras, batteries, maintenance, video storage, and docking station installment; personnel costs associated with training, video management (uploading, tagging, managing the videos) and review (time spent watching videos while writing reports); and other reoccurring costs such as licenses and video redaction in response to public requests of the footage. Redaction for a single video can take roughly 10 hours of a staff member’s time to ensure that no sensitive information is mistakenly released (Rankin, 2013). The costs can be enormous, especially for large agencies. For example, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, estimated that equipping all 1,200 patrol officers in a year would cost $880,000, or about the cost of hiring 12 new police officers (Stephenson & Luthern, 2015). But those costs may be worthwhile if the benefits of the cameras are great enough; unfortunately, few studies have deeply explored the cost-benefit aspect of BWCs.

An early cost-benefit analysis from a small convenience sample of officers in Renfrewshire, United Kingdom, found that the use of BWCs could amount to an annual savings of £125,000 in court, prosecution, and police costs, and more if the wider social and economic benefits through the reduction in crime are included (Fyfe, 2011). Results from a cost-benefit analysis of the Las Vegas Police Department’s BWC program found that BWCs can save roughly $6,200 in staff time associated with investigating an average complaint against an officer, resulting in a total estimated net savings of $4.1 to $4.4 million department-wide (Braga et al., 2017). The authors argue that BWCs reduce the total number of complaints against officers, as well as the time required to resolve each complaint, leading to substantial savings in overtime for the department. It is worth noting that the authors estimated a detective’s time spent on an investigation as 6 hours when there was a BWC and 80 hours when there was not a BWC, which greatly accounts for the reported savings.

BWC Limitations and Effectiveness

Given the mixed findings around the impact of BWCs on a number of outcomes, it is not clear whether these devices are an “effective” policing tool. To complicate matters further, very few agencies have actually identified goals for their body camera programs by which to measure the programs’ effectiveness. While some agencies—and certainly many advocacy groups and members of the public—believed BWCs might reduce police use of force, these devices have practical and technical limitations that might inhibit their ability to affect these and other outcomes. For example, BWCs cannot capture details of the officer’s behavior during a citizen encounter and they have a narrower field of view than the human eye. The use of BWC footage is also constrained by human interpretation, which is imperfect (Stoughton, 2017). Thus, it is critical that departments develop realistic goals for their BWC programs and use those as a barometer for its success. For example, even though BWCs may not change the behaviors of officers or citizens, they hold potential for improving police accountability and transparency if officers comply with departmental policies, notify individuals when they are recording, and work to release footage as quickly as possible upon request (Peterson, 2018).

Legal and Ethical Considerations

BWC Legislation

As police BWC programs have rapidly grown across the world, so too have a number of important legal and ethical considerations. One important consideration is to ensure the BWC program comports with the laws regulating their use. The Urban Institute developed an online tool that tracks state-level legislation in the United States that governs the use of BWCs (La Vigne & Ulle, 2017). This tool places BWC legislation into two main categories: laws that are applicable to BWCs and laws that are specific to BWCs. In the first category, the tool includes laws that generally govern audio and video recording in the state as well as laws concerning police records requests. According to this tool, nearly every state in the United States has legal provisions that exempt police from public records request—including the release of BWC footage—when it would disrupt an ongoing investigation or reveal the identity of a confidential witness. In addition, 30 states have laws that prohibit audio recording without consent, while only 13 states have similar laws specifically for video recording (also referred to as “two-party” or “all-party” consent states). In many states, law enforcement may be exempt from the restrictions to both audio and video recording when they are acting in their official capacity.

In the second category of legislation tracked in Urban’s tool, 16 states have passed laws that dictate where and when BWCs should be activated. Many of these laws require officers to activate their BWCs when stopping, detaining, or arresting an individual and prohibit the use of BWCs in schools, private residences, and medical/treatment facilities. Further, 26 states have legislation that restricts public access to footage. In many cases, these laws exempt footage from public records request, particularly if it would constitute an invasion of privacy or jeopardize an ongoing investigation. Finally, 17 states have laws on the books regarding video retention. Some of these laws prescribe specific storage times, such as 30 or 90 days, while others mandate that departments keep the footage for as long as they have evidentiary value or until the case has been concluded (La Vigne & Ulle, 2017).

Privacy Concerns

Although many states have enacted legislation that governs the use of BWCs in private dwellings or during confidential interviews with victims and witnesses, there remain important concerns about the impact of BWCs on privacy. Civil rights groups and local community organizations across the world have raised concerns about BWC policies that encroach on the privacy of individuals in the community. Because of their ubiquitous presence during encounters with the police, BWCs often draw comparisons to Big Brother from George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a symbol of a state where everyone is under constant surveillance by the government. In reality, however, lawmakers, LEAs, and the public must weigh their concerns about privacy against the potential for BWCs to increase transparency and accountability during police–citizen interactions.

In a survey on public attitudes toward BWCs, only one-fifth of respondents agreed that BWCs violate the privacy of anyone within viewing range of the camera, while even fewer believed the cameras violate the privacy of crime victims (21%) and suspects of crime (13%). Further, only one-quarter of respondents agreed that the police should comply with the requests of victims and witnesses to turn off their BWCs, while over 70% indicated that police should always have the BWC on when interacting with a citizen (Sousa et al., 2015).

These responses suggest that people believe the need to have video documentation of police interactions outweighs their concerns for general privacy. Legal scholars have similarly noted that society may need to sacrifice some privacy in order to see an increase in police accountability and reduction in misconduct (Thomas, 2016). Yet BWCs may also enhance privacy under the correct circumstances. For example, body cameras may lead to fewer privacy violations from law enforcement if they are successful in deterring inappropriate uses of force, illegal searches, and other forms of police misconduct. To maximize privacy and accountability, Thomas (2016) argues that BWC policies should minimize recordings of individuals in the community, limit the release of these recordings to situations that best serve both accountability and individual privacy, and ensure government officials are not able to abuse their access to the recordings.

While LEAs, civil rights groups, and the public are still trying to figure out how to weigh these fears about privacy against the potential benefits of BWCs, manufacturers have begun exploring ways to enhance their BWC software to improve their functionality and, as a result, improve additional privacy considerations. For example, Axon has recently acquired two companies that will help them to equip their cameras with video analytics like facial and object recognition. Though the use of these analytics with BWC footage has been hampered by poor video resolution, non-fixed frames of view, angles of bodies in motion, and limited computing power, Axon and other manufacturers have continued to address these technical barriers and will soon be bringing this technology to market (Kofman, 2017). As BWC-linked facial recognition is developed, the field will have to determine the degree to which such information should be used and whether it can further policing goals while also minimizing violations of the public’s privacy.

An issue that is often neglected in the discussion around privacy is how BWCs affects the privacy of officers. Though state laws and departmental policies only mandate that officers activate their cameras during law enforcement activities, there is still a possibility that BWC recordings will capture confidential or sensitive conversations between officers. Further, the faces, voices, and other identifying features of officers are typically not redacted from publicly disclosed footage. Despite these considerations, federal courts in the United States have consistently upheld that police officers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy while they are on the job (e.g., ACLU of Illinois vs. Alvarez, 2012). This sentiment has been echoed by law enforcement leadership, where surveys indicate that nearly two-thirds of police officials do not believe BWCs are an invasion of officers’ privacy (Smykla et al., 2016).

Public Disclosure and Access to Footage

Another important legal and ethical consideration for BWC programs is the disclosure of footage to the public. This is linked to privacy because BWC footage often contains private details about individuals captured by the cameras (e.g., faces, license plate numbers, or other personally identifying information) that could become public if the footage is released. As noted above, many states in the United States have passed legislation that exempts police departments from public disclosure laws that would otherwise compel them to release BWC footage. This is primarily to protect sensitive case details and information about any individual who may be part of an ongoing investigation as a suspect, victim, or witness. Public opinion surveys have also shown strong support for limiting the release of BWC footage. Only one in four respondents agreed that any member of the public should be able to access any BWC recording, while 30% agreed that the media should have access to these recordings (Sousa et al., 2015).

Despite these concerns, preventing the release of BWC footage may actually offset the promised benefits for improving transparency and accountability. One proposed solution is to develop better redaction technologies that can automate the removal of private information from BWC footage rather than police implementing broad exemptions from public disclosure laws (Fan, 2016). Redacting footage can balance the need to enhance police accountability while protecting sensitive and confidential information. In addition, departments may consider allowing public access only to videos that have been flagged to contain information relevant to an arrest, detention, use-of-force incident, or complaint (Stanley, 2015).

Future Scholarship

As detailed here, there is a growing research base on the use and effectiveness of BWCs in modern policing. However, there are several key issues that should be the focus of future scholarship. Lum, Koper, Merola, Scherer, and Reioux (2015) conducted a systematic review of BWC research and identified the gaps in knowledge. They found that the majority of BWC research was focused on policing outcomes, with very few studies examining the impact of BWCs on the courts (e.g., prosecutor behavior, defense strategies, evidence, and guilty findings or sentencing outcomes). Even among the articles focused on policing, the authors identified several topics with a limited research base, including how body cameras influence officer satisfaction and job retention; how footage is used in training; whether BWCs can be used to manage and supervise officers; and if they affect disparities or differential treatment by the police. Since that report was published, a number of areas have emerged that demand additional scholarly attention, including the impact of BWCs on police–community relationships, the utility of video footage as evidence, and camera activation/officer compliance to BWC policies.

Police–Community Relationships

The goal of many BWC programs is to improve transparency and accountability and, as a result, build trust and perceptions of legitimacy in members of the community. Yet, while there have been numerous studies on the impact of BWCs on officer behaviors and departmental outcomes, much less is known about how they affect police–community relations. Further, though surveys have consistently shown strong overall public support for BWCs, few studies have examined how implementation of a BWC program in a city affects public opinion of the LEA. In a large study from the United Kingdom, Ellis and colleagues (2015) assessed changes in public attitudes after all police officers on the Isle of Wight were issued a BWC. The authors conducted an initial survey of approximately 1,000 community members before and one year after the cameras were deployed. Though the level of public trust in the police did not change significantly after implementation of the BWC program, respondents were more likely to believe BWCs would increase the likelihood of conviction, reduce assaults on police officers, and reduce crime and disorder.

In another study, researchers conducted phone interviews with 249 community members who had contact with a BWC-wearing police officer in Spokane, Washington. Overall, the researchers found that individuals recorded by a BWC have positive perceptions of the cameras. The study also found that improving awareness of the camera was linked to increased perceptions of procedural justice (White et al., 2017b). This contradicts findings from a study in Arlington, Texas, where the researchers surveyed people who had interacted with officers and found that individual perceptions of legitimacy, satisfaction with the interaction, and opinions of police professionalism did not differ based on whether the officer was wearing a BWC (PERF, 2017). Likewise, a study conducted by the Urban Institute found that people’s satisfaction with a police encounter was not influenced by the presence of a BWC. Rather, they were more likely to be satisfied with the interaction if the officer displayed elements of procedural justice, regardless of whether there was a BWC (McClure et al., 2017).

Given the disconnect between the supposed goals of BWCs to improve transparency and the findings from recent studies on their impact on police–community relations, future research should continue to study the degree to which BWCs can help build and enhance the public trust in the police. Further, research should explore how BWCs can specifically improve police relations in disadvantaged and minorities communities, where perceptions of trust and legitimacy are often low.

Prosecution and Evidence

A second area in need of additional research is how BWC footage is used for prosecution. An aim of many police BWC programs is for the cameras to enhance evidence collection by catching a criminal act on video and recording confessions or witness statements. This evidence could then help prosecutors process and try cases. Despite this promise, there is a dearth of research in this area. One study from the United Kingdom examined the use of BWCs in aiding the prosecution of domestic abuse incidents. The authors found that incidents in which at least one of the responding officers was wearing a BWC were significantly more likely to result in a criminal charge (Owens et al., 2014). In another study on domestic offenses in the United States, Morrow and colleagues (2016) examined how the implementation of a BWC program affected outcomes related to arrest, prosecution, and conviction. They found that, after cameras were deployed, cases in which a BWC was present were significantly more likely to result in an arrest, have a charge filed, and to lead to a guilty plea or guilty finding at trial.

Based on the results from these two studies, BWCs appear to have some utility for processing and prosecuting cases related to domestic violence. This likely stems from the use of BWCs to record victim or witness statements and not their ability to capture video of the incident occurring in real time. Thus, this finding may be specific to the prosecution of domestic abuse cases and may not be generalizable to other criminal cases where victim or witness testimony is not as important for prosecution. Thus, future BWC research should identify additional circumstances in which BWCs can produce valuable evidence for prosecutors as well as the mechanisms through which BWCs secure this evidence (i.e., view recorded victim/witness statements, confessions, capturing the crime on camera, etc.).

Camera Activation and Officer Compliance

A final area for future scholarship is camera activations and officer compliance. A review of 129 agency policies indicates that most departments are now allowing supervisors to conduct compliance checks of officers’ BWC footage (White, Flipin, & Katz, 2017a). Still, there is limited research on the extent to which officers actually comply with their departmental policies regarding the use of BWCs. Studies on how frequently officers turn on their BWCs indicate that activation rates vary widely across and within LEAs. During a six-month experiment in 2015, activation rates in one U.S. agency ranged from 1.5% to 65.4% among 39 officers (McClure et al., 2017). In Mesa, Arizona, the department required officers to activate their BWCs during all contacts in the first six months of their study but left it to the officers’ discretion during the second six-month period. Perhaps not surprisingly, activations declined 42% between these two time periods (Young & Ready, 2018). Research conducted in Phoenix, Arizona, noted that BWC activations ranged from 6.5% for traffic stops to 47.5% for domestic violence cases (Katz et al., 2014) and that the rate of activation was highest in the month immediately after officers received the cameras (Katz et al., 2015). Moreover, studies show that activations increase when bystanders or the suspect are present at the scene but decrease if the victim is present (Young & Ready, 2018).

Thus, recent research on BWC activations has produced mixed results. Low activation rates may be a result of poor compliance, where officers wear the camera but do not activate it according to department policy, because of inadequate or nonspecific language in the policy governing the use of BWCs or a failure in training. Either way, the failure to activate a BWC puts the potential benefits of the technology in jeopardy. BWCs cannot be expected to generate positive effects if they are not implemented and utilized properly. Further, because it is difficult to link camera-activation data to police 911 data, researchers do not have a complete picture of officer compliance or how activation inhibits the effectiveness of a BWC program. Future research should develop better methods for addressing these gaps and evaluate new technologies that automate BWC activation through integration with CAD/RMS or other devices or weapons (e.g., cameras that are automatically activated when officers draw their handguns).

Further Reading

  • Braga, A., Coldren, J. R., Sousa, W., Rodriguez, D., & Alper, O. (2017). The benefits of body-worn cameras: New findings from a randomized controlled trial at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Final report to the National Institute of Justice, 2013-IJ-CX-0016. Washington, DC: CNA.
  • Cubitt, T. I., Lesic, R., Myers, G. L., & Corry, R. (2017). Body-worn video: A systematic review of literature. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 50, 3379–3396.
  • Jennings, W. G., Fridell, L. A., & Lynch, M. D. (2014). Cops and cameras: Officer perceptions of the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement. Journal of Criminal Justice, 42(6), 549–556.
  • Maskaly, J., Donner, C., Jennings, W. G., Ariel, B., & Sutherland, A. (2017). The effects of body-worn cameras (BWCs) on police and citizen outcomes: A state-of-the-art review. Policing: An International Journal, 40(4), 672–688.
  • Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). (2014). Implementing a body-worn camera program: Recommendations and lessons learned. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
  • Smykla, J. O., Crow, M. S., Crichlow, V. J., & Snyder, J. A. (2016). Police body-worn cameras: Perceptions of law enforcement leadership. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 41(3), 424–443.
  • Sousa, W. H., Coldren, J. R., Rodriguez, D., & Braga, A. A. (2016). Research on body-worn cameras: Meeting the challenges of police operations, program implementation, and randomized controlled trial designs. Police Quarterly, 19(3), 363–384.
  • Sousa, W. H., Miethe, T. D., & Sakiyama, M. (2015). Body worn cameras on police: Results from a national survey of public attitudes. Las Vegas: University of Nevada Las Vegas: Center for Crime and Justice Policy.
  • Stanley, J. (2015). Police body-mounted cameras: With right policies in place, a win for all. New York: ACLU.
  • White, M. D. (2014). Police officer body-worn cameras: Assessing the evidence. Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs.
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  • Young, J. T. N., & Ready, J. T. (2018). A longitudinal analysis of the relationship between administrative policy, technological preferences, and body-worn camera activation among police officers. Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, 12(1), 27–42.


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