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Police Body Cameras Aren't Having the Effects Many Expected

What’s likely the most comprehensive review of research on body cameras shows that they're most often used to prosecute citizens, not police. And while they've led to fewer citizen complaints, their impact on other aspects of policing, such as use of force, is less certain.

Footage from a Las Vegas police department body camera demonstration is projected on a screen.
(AP/John Locher)
For years, many people hailed body-worn cameras as a potential key to improving police transparency and strengthening often-fractured relationships with the communities they serve. But so far, academic research suggests the technology largely hasn't lived up to those expectations.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University.

Researchers reviewed 70 empirical studies on body cameras' effects, ranging from officer and citizen behavior to influences on law enforcement agencies as a whole. While much of the research remains mixed, it counters some promised benefits of body cameras at a time when departments are increasingly adopting the technology.

"There is an incongruence between people’s expectations of cameras, police expectations of cameras and what they think they’re being used for," says Cynthia Lum, the center's director and a  co-author of the report.


Mixed Results on Use of Force

One of the top-cited reasons behind the push for body cameras has been the potential to limit officers’ use of force. Six of the reviewed studies suggested officers wearing cameras were less likely to use force, but another eight studies found no statistically significant effects.

One study offered a possible explanation for the discrepancy: Officers required to wear and turn on their cameras used force less frequently than those given more discretion.

One impact the cameras do seem to have is a reduction in the number of citizen complaints. The vast majority of the studies reviewed show that officers wearing body cameras receive fewer complaints against them than those not being recorded.

The reasons for that remain unclear. It’s possible that officers change their behaviors, leading to fewer complaints. But officers have suggested that citizens are less likely to file unfounded complaints when they know incidents are recorded.

“Officers are liking body-worn cameras more and more because they see it as protection against frivolous complaints,” Lum says.


More Prosecutions, But Not For Police

The introduction of body cameras is also having an effect on criminal investigations. But while many anticipated that camera footage would lead to more prosecutions of police misconduct, they’re instead being used more often against citizens.

In one study, 93 percent of prosecutors’ offices used camera footage primarily in prosecutions of civilians. Findings from three British studies similarly suggest cameras might play a role in raising clearance rates and producing more guilty pleas. Other reports showed cameras were particularly useful in domestic violence cases, leading to increased arrests, charges, guilty pleas and guilty verdicts.

Still, there’s no strong evidence that body cameras reduce crime. The most rigorous study the George Mason University researchers reviewed didn’t find any “general deterrent effects.”


De-Policing Didn't Happen

Perhaps the most commonly cited potential drawback of body cameras has centered around claims that officers would pull back on enforcement activities, effectively leading to de-policing. But the majority of studies reviewed don’t support this concern. In fact, three studies suggested officers wearing cameras actually might initiate more total contacts than those without them. 

Lum says the research suffers from a shortcoming, though, in that it doesn’t distinguish between all the different types of actions officers take. Little research, for instance, examines whether body cameras encourage types of activities that might promote community policing. 

Many hoped the arrival of body cameras would foster greater accountability within departments. Research to date hasn’t concluded that any such shifts have occurred.

“Agencies influence technology, not the other way around,” Lum says. “The culture and other aspects of the agencies will really determine how it is used.”

One study, for example, concluded that cameras increased officer burnout and that better organizational support could help mitigate it. 

Some officers may perceive cameras primarily as a punitive measure. Rather than only using camera footage for disciplinary reasons, Lum recommends departments employ it as a learning tool for officers and their supervisors.

“The body-worn camera footage could provide a forum that increases the communication between the supervisor and the officer. And that might be a lever to strengthen the accountability structure,” she says. 


Citizen Interactions

One of the main goals of body cameras is to increase the public's trust in police. The research shows that hasn't happened.

One study reported no links between deployment of body cameras and citizens’ views of police legitimacy, professionalism or satisfaction with police interactions.

Meanwhile, studies examining their effects on resisting arrest or assaults on officers were mixed, and no definitive conclusions could be made about whether body cameras influenced numbers of arrests and citations. 


Body Cameras Are Here to Stay

Despite their uncertain effects, body cameras will likely continue to proliferate across police departments. A Bureau of Justice Statistics survey published last year reported 47 percent of general-purpose law enforcement agencies had already acquired the technology as of 2016, and studies consistently show that officers' views of the cameras improve over time as they begin using them.

But Lum cautions that police departments shouldn’t pursue body cameras merely because other agencies are doing so. 

“Agencies really have to think carefully about the goals they have for the cameras and whether they’re achieving those goals,” she says. “Just because it reduces frivolous complaints or helps prosecute crimes better may not necessarily do anything to the relationship between the citizens and police.”

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