On 2 December 2014, the White House announced a proposed investment package to purchase body-worn cameras for police departments across the country (“It’s Not Just a Ferguson Problem, It’s an American Problem” – Improving Community Policing). The announcement has generated much interest among law enforcement agencies, the communities served by these agencies, and organizations and associations that support and represent these affected groups. The White House proposal suggests that broad implementation of body-worn cameras is likely to “build and sustain trust between communities and those who serve and protect these communities.”
New Technology – Benefits & Challenges However, there needs to be more research evidence regarding body-worn cameras. Studies in Rialto, California, and Phoenix, Arizona, suggest that, although there are anticipated benefits, there also are challenges. The benefits that this technology offers law enforcement agencies include reductions in citizen complaints and police use of force, increases in officer safety, and likely reductions in lawsuits and out-of-court settlements, but cameras are only part of the solution.
Technology, when implemented with insufficient planning and foresight, can create more problems than it solves. It can be very costly unless the following issues are addressed: provision of quality training; sound management; clearly articulated policy; consideration of other information (e.g., police reports, eyewitness accounts) in resolving complaints and use of force incidents; understanding the limitations of the technology; citizen input regarding policies and practices; and sound policies regarding release of video files from the body-worn cameras.
In addition, the technology itself is fraught with challenges because its use is new in the law enforcement field: implementation costs; infrastructure and information management costs; and variations in equipment modalities. As such, the cost-benefit of this technology is unclear. Although cities may realize cost savings from reduced complaints and lawsuits, if they have to bear the predictably high costs of responding to public information requests for the cameras’ video files, those costs may trump the savings realized. The rapid pace of technological development behind these body-worn cameras can be hard to keep up with and the learning curve on its use can be steep, making the quick implementation of this new technology difficult and perhaps costly.
Implementing an Effective Program Agencies seeking federal funding to purchase body-worn cameras or in the process of implementing them should proceed with caution and consider the following:
Develop peer-to-peer relationships with agencies currently using body-worn cameras and seek advice and assistance with planning, policy development, and implementation;
Begin the body-worn camera process with a pilot program – before distributing cameras throughout the agency – to enable the department to reassess equipment, technology infrastructure, policy, and training;
Study and evaluate the impact of the cameras by examining citizen complaints, internal investigations, litigations, community relationships, and more; and
Include line officers and community members in the planning process because buy-in among both of these groups, as well as mid-level supervisors and agency leadership, is important to ensure the acceptance, proper implementation, and sustainment of the technology.
Most of the challenges are surmountable and, although agencies should proceed with caution, it is likely that a number of benefits will come from the use of body-worn cameras. In addition to funding the implementation of body-worn cameras nationwide, the federal government should ensure that technical assistance and training is readily available to local law enforcement agencies as they proceed with camera implementation. This has proven to be a sound approach in other federally sponsored large-scale system reform efforts, such as the Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance Program.
A comprehensive understanding about what the cameras provide, what problems they solve, as well as their limitations and access to expert technical assistance will enable law enforcement agencies and the federal government to better evaluate and review their effectiveness as a tool in increasing transparency, building and sustaining community trust, and protecting citizens and officers from harm.
Dr. James Coldren Jr. (pictured above) is the managing director for Criminal Justice Research Programs at CNA Corporation. He is the project director for Technical Assistance and Training for the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)-supported national Smart Policing Initiative and a project director for BJA’s Violence Reduction Network. He is the principal investigator for two National Institute of Justice-funded research projects – one concerning correctional equipment modalities and their impact on officer safety, and the other involving a randomized experiment with body-worn cameras in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Denise Rodriguez King is a research analyst in CNA Corporation’s Safety and Security division. While at CNA Corporation, she has: managed a number of projects; conducted assessments of police policy, practices, and procedures; reconstructed police critical incidents and large-scale events; drafted use-of-force policies; and developed law enforcement-specific assessment reports for a number of local level law enforcement agencies – including Tampa Police Department, Baltimore Police Department, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and Spokane Police Department.