It’s been several years since police body cameras started seeing widespread usage. Now, it’s time to look at the data to see what we know so far about how agencies are using these devices and whether they are providing the benefits we were expecting.
What Does Police Body Camera Footage Tell Us?
When an officer finishes a shift, the department typically will automatically reclaim the camera, dock the device, and upload the footage to a secure server. However, what can this footage tell us? Police body cam footage is often turned to as a silver bullet for accountability and objective event tracking, but this interpretation only tells part of the story. Between the lines, there is another vital narrative of culture and safety.
In some instances, body cam footage protects communities by capturing police brutality such as the Sterling Brown case. At other times, the footage can vindicate falsely-accused officers, as in the case of Sherita Dixon-Cole. Both cases highlight the value of body camera footage as a tool to sort out fact from fiction and help to support legal cases with evidence.
Body cameras also have other effects and implications, which have been the subject of intense research for the past decade. How do body cameras impact the outcome of an event? Do they change the behavior of officers or community members? The history and research on police body cameras can help both communities and law enforcement agencies begin to answer these questions.
The History and Statistics of Police Body Cam Footage
The utilization of police body cameras as we know it today is relatively new, notably surfacing in the UK from 2005. Within the past decade, the United States has focused a great deal of attention and funding towards equipping law enforcement agencies with body cameras, including over $23 million in grants in 2015. This program was designed to improve transparency and accountability, as well as mend trust between communities and law enforcement agencies.
Researchers have been working to identify whether body cameras can or do achieve these functions. For transparency and fact-checking, the devices do often fulfill that role. The NYC Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) substantiated police misconduct at twice the rate (18.6% from 9.3%) as non-recorded events from 2012-2017.
One assumption many made when the 2015 grants were distributed was that body cameras would impact the behavior of officers and community members. However, research since then has challenged this assumption. A 2017 study by The Lab @ DC showed that body cams do not lead to a significant decrease in the use of force, and a study from the University of Cambridge corroborated these findings the prior year.
Even if body cameras do not change behavior, that does not necessarily mean they are not useful tools for improving outcomes for both law enforcement agencies and communities. One of the most significant benefits of police body cameras is accountability and fact-checking, but another way agencies can use these results is to look at body camera footage as a tool to help understand and influence culture.
Body Cameras Can Inform Culture Shifts Towards Safety
While body cameras may not directly impact behavior or immediately resolve tensions between officers and their communities, they can provide invaluable information about culture as well as fact-checking purposes.
1. Culture Shifts for Police
Reviewing body cam footage can help departments and agencies understand the culture amongst their officers, particularly in relation to their communities. This learning can inform gaps in training and orientation, specific risks for personnel, and safety.
2. Culture Shifts for Community Members
Body cam footage can help agencies better understand how communities interact with police. Similar to the cultural impacts that this data can have for police, this understanding can lead to tailored training, community input, and a real-time understanding of a community’s relationship with police.
The Future of Police Body Cameras and Software
With the widespread adoption of police body cameras, there exists a gap in capabilities for agencies to manage, store, and evaluate footage and data. According to a report by IHS Markit, the digital evidence management market will need to respond by expanding and increasing capabilities and solutions. This kind of expansion can help to meet needs including:
- Raising quality and lowering costs of maintaining and reviewing police body cam footage
- Reducing the turnaround time for releasing requested footage
- Improving data quality and collection for body cam statistics and ongoing research
Police body camera technologies will continue to expand and improving technologies will help serve both law enforcement agencies and communities through better management of police body camera footage.
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