Why Do Police Wear Body Cameras? The Benefits from the COPS Perspective.

Why do police officers wear body cameras?

Like is or not, body cameras worn by police officers are on the rise.

As of 2019, it is estimated that over 50% of police departments now use body cameras.

In this article, you will find exactly why police departments use body worn cameras (BWC’s).

So, do body cameras have any benefits for the police that where them?

Let’s find out.

Why Do Police Wear Body Cameras?

Whether an officer pulls someone over at a traffic stop, or enters a home for a civil dispute the reason body camera’s are used is the same.

According to the US Department of Justice’s, Community Oriented Policing Service (COPS). There are two main reasons that police officers use BWC’s.

Reason #1- Accountability and transparency

The first reason that COPS recommends BWC for police officers is to improve accountability and department transparency.

Here’s the deal, there are two methods by which body cameras on police officers are perceived to improve accountability and transparency.

Reducing complaints and resolving officer-involved incidents

BWC’s on officers can provide evidence of police misconduct or otherwise dangerous behavior.

This can help reduce police misconduct in several ways. Perhaps the greatest reason misconduct is reduced by body worn camera’s, is the simple fact that most people are on their best behavior in front of a camera.

According to Ron Miller, Chief of Police, Topeka, Kansas:

“Everyone is on their best behavior when the cameras are running. The officers, the public—everyone.”

Ron Miller, Chief of Police, Topeka, Kansas2

Look, it’s simple, in front of a camera police are less likely to loss their cool, and so are the people they interact with.

So naturally, at least from the perceptive of COPS. Body cameras reduce complaints by simply being present.

Get this, some studies on individual departments had interesting results

Here are a few interesting data points:

  • “Use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59 percent” (Rialto, California)
  • “Complaints against officers dropped by 87 percent” (Rialto, California)
  • “The percent of officers with body-worn cameras that generated at least one report for use of force decreased from 31.2%to 19.7%” (Las Vegas, Nevada)

On the downside, according to one study, officers with body cameras were slightly MORE likely to make an arrest, or even issue a citation.

The Las Vegas Body-Worn Camera Experiment3

This increase in arrests and citations is a perceived benefit for police departments, however for the public the opposite is likely true.

In future articles, we will take a look at body cameras impact on the public, but this article is limited to the reasons police departments use body cameras.

Identifying and correcting internal agency problems

The second perceived benefit of body worn camera’s on police officers from the COPS perspective is to identify and correct internal issues.

Footage from BWC is used in police training:

One of the biggest ways that footage from body worn cameras on police officers can help correct internal problems, is by using footage for training.

Think about it, just like a recorded call to your insurance company. Video footage can help train officers and avoid common mistakes. This can be a benefit to both the public and the officer.

For example, you can see why body cameras can be so important from a police departments perspective, in this incident described by, Chief Chitwood of Daytona Beach, Florida:

“We had an officer who had several questionable incidents in the past, so we outfitted him with a camera. Right in the middle of an encounter with a subject, the camera goes blank, and then it comes back on when the incident is over. He said that the camera malfunctioned, so we gave him another one. A week later he goes to arrest a woman, and again, the camera goes blank just before the encounter. He claimed again that the camera had malfunctioned. So we conducted a forensic review of the camera, which determined that the officer had intentionally hit the power button right before the camera shut off. Our policy says that if you turn it off, you’re done. He resigned the next day.”

-Daytona Beach, Chief Chitwood2
Why do police wear body cameras? There are three major reasons. To improve accountability, police department transparency and documenting evidence.

Reason #2- Evidence documentation

This one is fairly obvious, but it is worth mentioning.

BWC on police officers are a great source of evidence that police officers can use to document information and gather evidence.

This can help police recall details about an incident they may have forgotten otherwise.

According to the COPS perspective, reviewing the footage will help officers rectal an incident more clearly. This can lead to more accurate documentation of the events.

On the other hand, some argue that using video footage to recall an incident and document their experience may change the officers perception of the incident.

“Camera footage can be misleading. If an officer views the footage before filing his or her report, an opportunity will arise for the officer to conform the report to what the video appears to show, rather than on what he or she remembers.”

-Sakira Cook of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

This concern can be easily overridden by requiring police officers to file a report, before reviewing any footage.

However, many officers would argue that the quality of information captured by a body worn camera on an officer outweigh the risks to the public.

“Although body-worn cameras are just one tool, the quality of information that they can capture is unsurpassed. With sound policy and guidance, their evidentiary value definitely outweighs any drawbacks”

– Jason Parker, Chief of Police, Dalton (Georgia) Police Department2

Some civil liberty groups like the ACLU, see the potential for body worn camera’s to be beneficial for the public, when used properly.

“For the [ACLU], the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability.”

-“Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All” (New York: ACLU, 2013)5

At the End of The Day

No matter your perspective, body cameras on police officers have had a significant impact on policing.

The good, body worn cameras appear to lead to less police complaints, better police conduct and better documentation of evidence.

The bad, body camera footage comes with risks to personal privacy, and BWC’s appear to increase the frequency at which officer’s issue citations and make arrests.

In the next article, we will take a look at the other issues surrounding body camera use by police officers in future instillation of this series.

Until then, why not learn more about the history of traffic laws?

Part 2: Body Cameras and Public Privacy Coming soon Subscribe to the newsletter for updates.

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“Whether you store video internally or externally, protecting the data and preserving the chain of custody should always be a concern. Either way, you need something built into the system so that you know that video has not been altered.”

– Ken Miller, Chief of Police, Greensboro (North Carolina) Police Department2

To be continued….

Citations:

  1. https://www.govtech.com/data/Just-How-Common-Are-Body-Cameras-in-Police-Departments.html
  2. Miller, Lindsay, Jessica Toliver, and Police Executive Research Forum. 2014. Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned. Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
  3. https://www.policefoundation.org/body-worn-camera-study-by-executive-fellow-chief-tony-farrar-is-published-in-scientific-journal/
  4. https://www.cna.org/cna_files/pdf/LV-BWC-RIB-2017.pdf
  5. https://www.aclu.org/other/police-body-mounted-cameras-right-policies-place-win-all
  6. https://www.azpm.org/s/52169-tpd-fails-body-cam-test-by-civil-rights-coalition/

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