A landmark study published this month has found the use of body-worn cameras (BWC) by Chicago police officers effectively decreased the excessive use-of-force by cops without increasing the risk of officer injury.
The study, conducted by Toshio Ferrazares, a research fellow at the San Diego State Research Foundation and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, based its conclusions on an analysis of use-of-force complaints by civilians between 2014 and 2017.
It found a 33 percent reduction in complaints, equating to 281 fewer use-of-force complaints per year, and a 42 percent reduction in officers who were reported to have struck a civilian, following the implementation of body-worn cameras.
Body-worn cameras were first introduced in a pilot project for the Chicago Police Department (CPD) in 2015. By 2017, some 7,000 sworn officers—a majority of the force—were equipped with them.
A statement from the Mayor’s press office called it an “ integral part of the Department’s commitment to strengthen CPD’s crime fighting and investigatory tools, increase transparency and accountability, promote the safety of officers and residents, and rebuild trust with the communities that police serve.”
The reduction in use-of-force complaints was driven by a decrease in white officer-Black civilian incidents, the study said, noting that officer firearm usage also decreased since the introduction of the cameras.
A primary criticism of police body cameras is that officers will be less likely to intervene in dangerous situations or make arrests for fear of external scrutiny, something known as “de-policing.”
But the study, utilizing multiple datasets documenting police and civilian actions, found no significant reduction in action or effort from police officers, and additionally found no difference in civilians resisting arrest or assaulting police officers associated with the implementation of body-worn cameras.
There was also no change in reported injuries to police officers.
While the study found that body-worn cameras were not associated with a change in overall arrest behavior, there was a 28 percent decrease in drug-related arrests per day following the implementation of body-worn cameras.
However, the study found no significant changes in the number of arrests for assault/battery and theft/robbery.
Background of Body-Worn Cameras
Following the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed civilian in Ferguson, Mo., that resulted in national protests and calls for police accountability, former President Barrack Obama announced a $75 million grant to purchase body-worn cameras for U.S. police agencies.
The U.S. Department of Justice disbursed $23.2 million of this grant to 73 agencies across 32 states during the first year of the 2015 initiative.
Now, over 80 percent of U.S. police departments with more than 1,000 officers use body-worn cameras for the purpose of supporting or exonerating accusations of officer misconduct, according to the study.
Less than half of departments with less than 1,000 officers have implemented body-worn cameras.
About 75 percent of departments without body-worn cameras cite cost as the reason for not implementing them.
In Chicago, 97 percent of complaints against police do not result in disciplinary action.
Supporters of body-worn cameras say they not only allow police to be held accountable for their actions, but provide officers protection against wrongful complaints.
However, little research has been done on the effects of body-worn cameras on police and civilian actions.
Chicago was chosen as the location for the study as it has a robust body-worn camera program across 22 policing districts where all officers are required to wear the cameras.
“By law, officers are required to activate their BWC for almost all law-enforcement-related encounters and maintain recording until either the officer is no longer engaged in the incident, the victim of the crime requires the BWC be disabled, or when interacting with a confidential informant or witness,” Ferrazares wrote.
Police officers are not required to turn on their camera when they are performing strip searches, inside a medical facility, at a court hearing or while at a private residence if there is no reason to believe a crime has taken place.
If police officers turn off their camera, they must state the reason before doing so.
In addition, if police officers believe there may be a danger to themselves or others by turning on the camera, they are not required to do so.
All recordings must be saved for a minimum of 90 days and recordings of police use-of-force or of any death must be saved a minimum of two years.
More Research Needed
Ferrazares wrote there is still more research that needs to be done in order to reduce violence between police officers and civilians while still reducing overall crime.
A similar type of study assessing the effects of body-worn cameras on police and civilians should also be performed in cities with smaller police forces, as the results may differ.
“Ideas for change have had a wide range, from fully dismantling police forces to increasing funding to social workers and other complementary police services,” Ferrazares wrote.
“Now is the time for researchers to do their part to explore policing reforms, their outcomes and effectiveness, with hopes of bringing forth positive change,” he wrote.
The full paper is available for download here.
Blake Diaz is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.