A Decade into Police Body Cameras: Assessing Their Efficacy

by Ethan Kim
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Police Body Cameras

Over the past decade, body cameras have become increasingly common among law enforcement agencies in the U.S. This surge in adoption has been driven by increasing scrutiny of the interactions between officers and the communities they serve. The devices are instigating significant changes in policing practices, although the evidence is still mixed concerning their overall effectiveness.

At a national discussion hosted by the Police Executive Research Forum, representatives from over 200 law enforcement agencies came together to deliberate on this critical tool. The Big Big News was present for this insightful conversation.

New York City was one of the initial major departments to implement body cameras back in 2013. This decision was made after a federal court discovered that police had inappropriately targeted minorities through a stop-and-frisk program. Many other departments followed suit, particularly in response to national protests ignited by the tragic 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

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Federal funding helped expedite the uptake of body cameras, with 80% of large departments using them by 2016, based on the latest Justice Department data. However, federal agencies have been more sluggish in their adoption.

Although public outcry over police violence played a significant role in the surge of body camera usage, research on whether they help reduce police force is inconclusive, says Megan Cahill, the group’s research director. Some studies suggest that officers equipped with cameras tend to use less force, but other studies don’t find any discernible difference.

“These technologies aren’t a magic solution; simply turning them on doesn’t guarantee the desired outcomes,” explains Nancy La Vigne, director of the National Institute of Justice. “Effective policy and implementation play a crucial role.”

Defining policies about the conditions for activating the cameras and whether to incorporate technology for automatic activation are significant considerations, La Vigne added.

Research has consistently demonstrated that citizen complaints tend to decline when officers start using body cameras, Cahill noted. The reasons for this trend are still uncertain, though it might be because the awareness of being recorded influences the behaviors of both officers and citizens.

Chief David Zibolski of Fargo, North Dakota, notes that while complaints haven’t necessarily decreased since the introduction of body cameras, they have provided clarity for people on all sides of contentious situations. “There are hardly any complaints we can’t resolve one way or the other,” he stated.

Despite initial resistance from many officers, body cameras have become highly favored tools, often highlighting instances of correct policing, said Los Angeles Police Commander Steve Lurie.

In San Antonio, body camera footage played a pivotal role in a recent murder case involving three officers and the fatal shooting of 46-year-old Melissa Perez, according to Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. The video provided an explicit account of the officers’ actions, revealing Perez’s apparent mental health crisis. “A year ago, without video tape, the case would not have had the same outcome,” Wexler observed.

Although body cameras aren’t a cure-all, they are increasingly used for officer training on appropriate policing methods in many departments. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police, for example, maintains a library of recorded interactions where officers successfully defused situations, proving invaluable for training purposes.

Chief John Mueller highlighted the significance of this trend: “This is one of the seminal changes in my generation. This has changed the game.”

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