There are parts of the country right now where the community’s confidence in their police departments is shrinking. With various incidents being documented on civilian cellphones over the past few years, the issues of force, and when that force is justifiable, are more in the public spotlight than ever before. These incidents have led to an erosion of trust between the public and those charged with keeping them safe.
As a possible response to this situation, both citizens and legislators have called for more accountability, sometimes in the form of officers using body-worn cameras (or BWCs), so that their actions are recorded. The question is, are these BWCs an effective way to increase both trust and accountability? The fact of the matter is that so far, we’ve only been able to gather mixed information as to whether or not that’s the case.
Over the past few years, many different law enforcement agencies have begun using BWCs in random trials, choosing when their officers wear the cameras and when they don’t. This is sometimes done by shift, as well, so that every officer on duty during a particular shift is wearing a camera, while another shift isn’t.
Through randomization, these agencies could compare the behavior of officers who were wearing the cameras and those who weren’t.
In previous randomization studies, both in the U.S. and abroad, the results showed that officers wearing body cameras tended to have fewer citizen complaints filed against them, while the use of force wasn’t affected much, if at all.
This time around, in a study conducted late last year in Washington, D.C., the results were, if anything, even more ambiguous.
In D.C., there wasn’t a significant difference in the number of civilian complaints OR the use of force between officers with and without body cameras, and further study proved these statistics correct: There was no remarkable difference in the way officers behaved when they were using BWCs.
In a sense, this could be considered a positive. If a police force’s behavior hadn’t changed significantly while they were being recorded, perhaps that suggested that the frightening incidents of excessive force, or perceived excessive force, were aberrations, not the norm. But that still leaves the problem of perception: People might still have trouble trusting their law enforcement professionals to do the right thing.
But it’s hard to discount the use of BWCs for just that reason: The simple knowledge that these officers are wearing cameras could be just as helpful as their more practical uses. If the public believes that an officer will behave differently, or if they at least have some sort of objective form of recourse to address their issues, like a recording of their interactions, that could lead them to feel safer and more trusting of law enforcement as well.
And it’s worth pointing out that BWC footage can be very important in situations where an officer is accused of excessive force or receives a general complaint of some sort. With an objective recording of an incident, both the citizens and the officers have material with which to argue their side of the story. After all, the adage remains true: The camera doesn’t lie, even if we’d like it to sometimes.