Police Body Cameras: Top 3 Pros and Cons
Police body cameras (also called body-worn cameras) are small cameras worn on a law enforcement officer’s chest or head to record interactions between the officer and the public. The cameras have a microphone to capture sound and internal data storage to save video footage for later review.
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, “[t]he video and audio recordings from BWCs [body-worn cameras] can be used by law enforcement to demonstrate transparency to their communities; to document statements, observations, behaviors, and other evidence; and to deter unprofessional, illegal, and inappropriate behaviors by both law enforcement and the public.” Police body cameras are in use around the world from Australia and Uruguay to the United Kingdom and South Africa.
After the police shooting death of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama requested $263 million to fund body camera programs and police training on Dec. 1, 2014.As a result the Department of Justice (DOJ) implemented the Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program (BWC-PIP). Between fiscal year (FY) 2015 and FY 2019, the BWC-PIP has given over 493 awards worth over a collective $70 million to law enforcement agencies in 47 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. Agencies in Maine, Montana, and North Dakota have not been awarded federal body camera funding. ]
As of Oct. 29, 2018, the most recently available information, 36 states and DC had specific legislation about the use of police body cameras. At that time, another four states had pending body camera legislation.
Should Police Officers Wear Body Cameras?
Police body cameras improve police accountability and lower reports of police misconduct.
Police body cameras provide visual and audio evidence that can independently verify events. In Texas, a police officer was fired, charged with murder, and sentenced to a $10,000 fine and 15 years in prison after body-worn camera footage contradicted his initial statement in the Apr. 2017 shooting of an unarmed youth.
In Baltimore, Maryland, an officer was convicted of fabricating evidence and misconduct in office after being caught by body-worn cameras planting fake drug evidence.
A RAND study found that use of force by police officers dropped if the officers wearing cameras kept the cameras recording for the officers’ whole shift.In Miami-Dade County, Florida, researchers found a 19% reduction in police officers using physical force against citizen resistance, and civil cases against the police department for use of force dropped 74%.
In Phoenix, Arizona, complaints against officers wearing cameras decreased 23%, while complaints against officers not wearing cameras increased 10.6%.
The cameras also protect police officers against false accusations of misconduct. In San Diego, California, the use of body cameras provided the necessary evidence to exonerate police officers falsely accused of misconduct. The number of severe misconduct allegations deemed false increased 2.4% with body camera footage, and the number of officers exonerated for less severe allegations related to conduct, courtesy, procedure, and service increased 6.5%.Read More
Police body cameras are a powerful tool in domestic violence cases.
When an officer wearing a camera arrives at a domestic violence scene, the camera is able to record the immediate aftermath of the attack, including injuries the victim has suffered, as well as victim statements that may be more honest than later statements once victims remember emotional and financial ties to their abusers.Victims may also feel more secure in their testimony with video evidence backing up their statements.
Elliott Knetsch, JD, Prosecutor for the City of Burnsville, Minnesota, whose police department uses body-worn cameras, stated, “When the cops are called and come through the door, the victim is very happy and relieved to see them. They feel safe. They tell the officer what happened. That statement given right at that moment is more likely to be the truth than what comes out even half an hour later, when the implications of what has happened start to set in.”
In the six months since body cameras were deployed in Burnsville, police recorded video for almost every domestic violence case, something former Chief Deputy of the Dakota County Attorney’s Office, Phil Prokopowicz, JD, found useful. He stated that camera footage “can be influential in resolving the case in terms of negotiations. The defendant gets to see the act and know what will be displayed in front of the jury. The documenting of those first moments is very critical to those types of cases, as well as any admissions that may occur as officers are entering.”
Officers in the United Kingdom and Queensland, Australia echoed this benefit, stating some abusers plead guilty because they knew there was video footage evidence against them.Read More
Police body cameras are a good police reform tool and have strong support from members of the public.
Police body worn cameras offer transparency and accountability to the public, which is an attempt to “mend that frayed relationship between the police and the community,” according to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, JD.
Video recorded from police body cameras can be used to train new and existing officers in how to perform during difficult encounters with the public. The Miami Police Department has been using body cameras for training since 2012. Former Police Major Ian Moffitt, MS, stated, “we can record a situation, a scenario in training, and then go back and look at it and show the student, the recruit, the officer what they did good, what they did bad, and [what they can] improve on.”
Amid the Black Lives Matter protests after the death of George Floyd, a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll found 92% of Americans wanted federal police officers to wear body cams.A July 2020 University of Maryland School of Public Policy survey found 90% support for all police officers being required to wear body cameras, including 85% of republicans, 86% of independents, and 94% of democrats. Read More
Police body cameras are too expensive and unreliable for many police departments.
Equipping police departments with body cameras is extremely expensive as forces have to budget not only for the camera but also for ancillary equipment (such as a car charger or mount), training, data storage facilities, extra staff to manage the video data, and maintenance costs.Baltimore Police entered a body-worn camera program in 2016 for $11.3 million. As of June 25, 2020, the costs had tripled to $35.1 million.
Many police departments, especially smaller departments with smaller budgets, have suspended body-worn camera programs citing rising costs of the cameras, maintenance of the programs, employees, and data storage.
A trial in Edmonton, California, found that body-worn cameras had an insufficient battery length for daily policing, especially in cold weather when battery life diminished more quickly.
A sheriff’s office in Virginia stopped using body cameras due to the unreliability of their on-off buttons and poor integration with their IT systems that resulted in the system inaccurately matching camera footage to the officer wearing the camera.As the cameras, supporting equipment, and networks age, costs will only rise to maintain or replace equipment.
In a perhaps extreme but cautionary example, in Oct, 2018 a Staten Island, New York, officer’s body camera burst into flames while the officer was wearing the device. He was luckily not injured, but the department was forced to recall thousands of cameras.Read More
Police body cameras invade the privacy of citizens, potentially exposing victims and subjecting citizens to facial recognition software.
Recording police encounters with the public could lead to the public exposure of private medical conditions such as mental illness. Victims of crimes such as rape or domestic abuse may be further traumatized by recordings. Informants or witnesses may fear reprisal from criminals. People being arrested may fear the damage of public exposure, such as being fired from a job.
Former Spokane, Washington, Police Chief Frank Straub, PhD, notes that “every day we are exposing persons challenged by mental illness, autism, developmental disabilities, addiction, etc. We are creating and making public recordings of their illness and potentially creating life-long consequences.”
Former Chief of Police Ken Miller, MPA, of Greensboro, North Carolina, said that if citizens “think that they are going to be recorded every time they talk to an officer, regardless of the context, it is going to damage openness and create barriers to important relationships.”
One such barrier is fear of retaliation. A US Justice Department report notes that some “people will be less likely to come forward to share information if they know their conversation is going to be recorded, particularly in high-crime neighborhoods where residents might be subject to retaliation if they are seen as cooperating with police.”
Another privacy fear, according to the ACLU, is that police body cameras will be worn as “roving surveillance devices that track our faces, voices, and even the unique way we walk” that could be used “to track, classify, and discriminate against people based on their most personal, innate features.”Read More
Police body cameras decrease the safety of police officers and negatively affect their physical and mental health.
Assaults on police officers were 14% higher when body cameras were present.Some people may respond negatively or violently to being filmed by police, especially those who may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or who are suffering from mental health problems.
University of Oklahoma Professor of Law Stephen E. Henderson, JD, stated that the use of police body cameras may be psychologically damaging to officers because “nobody does well to be under constant surveillance.”
Pat Lynch, President of the Police Benevolent Association of the City of New York, stated officers “are already weighed down with equipment like escape hoods [gas masks], Mace, flashlights, memo books, ASPs [batons], radio, handcuffs and the like. Additional equipment becomes an encumbrance and a safety issue for those carrying it.”
Other potential health and safety issues include head and neck injuries, electric shock or burns from faulty or damaged equipment, and the spread of contagious infectious diseases if the units are shared.Read More
- Should police officers wear body cameras? Why or why not?
- In what ways might body worn cameras improve policing? In what ways might they complicate or impair policing? Explain your answers.
- Should police departments consider other reforms in addition or instead of body cameras? Which ones? Explain your answers