Use of body-worn cameras, or body cams, by police departments continues to trend up. According to a survey released in August 2018 by the Police Executive Research Forum, more than 80 percent of U.S. police agencies are either using body cams now or have plans to do so in the near future. More than 85 percent of the departments that currently use body cams would recommend them to others.
“Body-worn cameras can demonstrate that a police agency is willing to be transparent and accountable for its actions. The conceptual appeal of body-worn cameras has led to rapid adoption of the technology in police agencies across the country,” the report found.
Other developments have helped drive this swift adoption. In late 2014, the Obama administration proposed the $263 million Body-Worn Camera Partnership Program, a federally funded body-camera advocacy initiative for states and localities. The program was later approved.
At around the same time, the police department in Rialto, California, participated in an influential study, Self-Awareness to Being Watched and Socially-Desirable Behavior: A Field Experiment on the Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use-of-Force. The study found that, during a year-long trial period of body cam use, public complaints against officers fell 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months.
But lately, there have been a few reality checks. In 2017, Washington, D.C., officials released the surprising results of their own randomized controlled trial of body cam use by the city’s police department. The study found that body cam use had no detectable effects on police discretion, as measured by arrests for disorderly conduct. And the D.C. study featured more than 2,000 police officers, compared to 54 in the Rialto experiment.
“These results suggest we should recalibrate our expectations” that body cams will cause a large-scale behavioral change in policing, particularly in contexts similar to Washington, D.C., the study explained.
Another challenge is cost. Video storage can be expensive, especially when dealing with a high volume. These cost factors recently caused some police departments to drop, or consider dropping, their body cam programs, according to recent media reports.
For example, in February, Unified Police Department officers in Salt Lake County, Utah, said their agency may discontinue use of body cameras, partly due to the high costs for digital video storage. Previously, the department outfitted 125 of its 410 officers with body cams, using funding from a grant that expires this year. But supplying all officers would cost more than $400,000 per year, according to the agency.
Cost can also present an issue for smaller departments, such as the one in East Dundee, a village suburb of Chicago. The police department there ordered body cameras for its 17 police officers. Before they could be put to use, a new police chief persuaded local officials to cancel the program. The chief argued that the $20,000 annual fee for the cameras and video storage could not be justified as a budget expense.
Still, while not every police department is jumping on the body cam bandwagon, others have expressed great satisfaction with their programs. Jeff Karpovich, CPP, the chief of security and director of transportation at High Point University in High Point, North Carolina, found that his security force’s use of body cameras—called “chest cams” because of where they are worn on the uniform—has been a big help, for several reasons.
One is that they have increased accountability. “Our officers are as human as anyone else out there, and some may have the inclination to say things and do things that they probably shouldn’t do if nobody is looking,” says Karpovich, who is a member of ASIS International. But an active chest cam acts as a “digital supervisor,” nudging officers to comply with all rules and regulations.
Another reason is that chest-cam video frequently serves as a means of exoneration in response to complaints lodged against officers. “It proves to others they did what they were supposed to do,” he explains. “It has exonerated them time and time again.”
Furthermore, chest-cam video provides great value as evidence. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, video is worth a million words,” Karpovich says.
However, this value comes with a responsibility: video must be produced when it is needed, so technical glitches are costly. Citizens understand if a scuffle between an officer and a civilian leads to unwatchable or unusable video, Karpovich explains. But if an incident that should have been recorded was not recorded, or if there is an unexplained gap during crucial moments in a video, citizens become suspicious. “The absence of chest-cam video reeks of cover-up,” Karpovich says. “If we have a program like this, we had best have it working properly.”
High Point’s security force follows rules set out in its standard operating procedure (SOP), but since it is not a police department, it is not covered by the growing types of state regulations that are now being formulated regarding public access to body cam video. In 2018, lawmakers in 36 states and D.C. introduced legislation aimed at creating statewide rules governing the use of body cameras, according to a recent Washington Post report. Often, these efforts are driven by an attempt to increase transparency.
For example, in February, a New York appellate court determined that the public has the right to view footage from body cameras. The ruling rejected an argument made by the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, the New York City police union, that public access to video should be blocked under a state law that requires police personnel records be kept secret.
At High Point, Karpovich says the chest cam program developed into a successful and beneficial enterprise. Although video is not kept forever, it is stored for a limited amount of time in case relevant complaints are made, making costs manageable. Also, certain safeguards prevent video from being released on YouTube or social media, such as password protections that greatly limit the number of people in-house who can access video.
“I don’t see anything derailing this,” he says of the camera program. “It’s a proven tool.”