To say body-worn cameras are a controversial topic—particularly in the United States—is something of a massive understatement. On the one hand, you have police officers who say body-worn cameras actually make their jobs harder because they’re constantly being monitored for atypical behavior in a field where things are rarely as “black and white” as people want them to be. On the other hand, you have people in communities who argue body-worn cameras (and the footage they create) actually maintains a much-needed level of accountability in law-enforcement agencies around the world.
Regardless of which side of the argument you come down on, two recent studies have been conducted that reveal your first impressions about body-worn cameras were probably wrong. Both studies are definitely worth examining, particularly since this is one issue that shows absolutely no signs of going away anytime soon.
The Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia
The first of the two studies was recently commissioned by the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, otherwise known as the MPDC. It attempted to dive deeper into the actual effects of body-worn cameras related to not only arrests but also prosecutions, convictions, use of force, misconduct complaints against officers, and other important issues of the modern era.
The study compared two randomly selected samples of law-enforcement officers—those with body-worn cameras and those without. Every aspect of the two groups was compared against each other, and researchers attempted to control as much as possible for factors like age, gender, experience, areas worked, and even shifts of the officers.
The results were surprising because they actually didn’t vary as much as you would think. While it’s true certain aspects—like the number of arrests—did go up in the group without body-worn cameras, they actually evened out fairly well in the grand scheme of things. Truth be told, there was no significant statistical difference between the two groups—something that essentially shatters both sides of the argument in a very interesting way.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
The second study was conducted in association with two different organizations—The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn. It was designed to act as a “policy scorecard” on police officers who wore body-worn cameras. Essentially, it takes a look at the body-worn camera policies of 75 different law-enforcement agencies in the United States and assigns each one a score based on the types of policies the two organizations believe these agencies should have. The results are also enlightening but from a slightly different perspective.
While many of the agencies actually scored fairly well, what the study really does is highlight the disconnect between how people see police officers and how police officers see themselves. Almost none of the law-enforcement agencies followed a recommended policy that would forbid officers from seeing body-worn camera footage until after they have completed their incident reports, for example—something even law-enforcement supporters of these cameras argue is contrary to one of their intended goals.
Champions of body-worn cameras say the types of police officers the cameras are supposed to support would need that footage to be sure their incident reports are as accurate as possible. Forbidding them from having access to that footage only increases the chances they may write something inaccurate due to the fickle nature of memory, thus allowing legitimate convictions to be overturned on the basis of an inaccurate report in the first place. Law-enforcement experts also argue this policy would result in more officers being accused of deliberate lies in situations where they simply made a mistake—something that ultimately benefits nobody involved.
Regardless of which side of this argument you come down on, it is clear the issue of body-worn cameras in law enforcement isn’t going away anytime soon. Studies like these will continue to play an important role in determining how they should best be used moving forward.