Body-Worn Cameras May Not Affect Police Behavior, Study Finds

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The way police officers around the U.S. use body-worn cameras may not substantially affect most officer behavior, although restricting their discretion in turning the cameras on and off may reduce police use of use, finds a new analysis of 30 studies of the devices.

“Body-worn cameras (BWCs) are one of the most rapidly spreading and costly technologies used by police agencies today,” said criminologist Cynthia Lum of George Mason University, who led the study.

“Amid high-profile officer-involved shooting incidents and protests, our review questions whether BWCs bring the expected benefits to the police and their communities: BWCs do not seem to affect officers’ or citizens’ behaviors in the ways initially hoped for by police leaders and citizens.”

Many citizens and community groups have supported adoption of BWCs, while some police and community members have expressed concern that they might infringe on
privacy, discourage citizens from reporting crimes, or cause officers to refrain from work that may help prevent offending.

The analysis found some indication that cameras were associated with less use of force when officers had limited or discretion in activating cameras. Results were inconclusive as to whether BWCs actually produced reductions that were statistically meaningful.

The review found that overall, the way BWCs are used does not seem to affect other police and citizen behaviors in a significant or consistent manner.

That includes officers’ self‐initiated activities (including traffic stops and stop-and-frisks) or arrests. Nor do BWCs have clear effects on citizens’ calls to police, or on assaults or resistance against officers.

The analysis found that cameras can reduce the number of citizen complaints against
police officers. It was unclear whether this finding showed an improvement in the quality of interactions between police and citizens or a change in reporting.

“Law-enforcement agencies that have or plan to acquire BWCs and the communities they
serve should temper their expectations about the cameras’ effectiveness,” said George Mason criminologist Christopher Koper, who coauthored the study.

He added that, “Police agencies should continue to test the ways police and citizens might benefit from using BWCs. Determining how to use cameras to reap long‐term gains of strengthening organizational accountability may be a better investment than the more short‐term gains we measured.”

The analysis appears in Campbell Collaboration Systematic Reviews, an international, voluntary, nonprofit research network that publishes systematic reviews. The research was supported by Arnold Ventures.

Additional Reading:

Body Cameras Ordered for Officers in California Prison

Body Cameras and New Age of Accountability

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of TCR.

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