Police body cameras pros and cons: Do the benefits of added transparency and accountability in policing outweigh cost and privacy concerns? Let’s explore. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter. Photo by Ryan Johnson, CC 2.0.
Police Body Cameras: A Brief Overview
Police body cameras pros and cons seized political discourse in 2015 amid a series of high-profile police-related deaths of black Americans. Outrage over excessive force and demands for more transparency in policing fueled calls to equip all officers with body cameras.
Police body cameras are small devices mounted on an officer’s shoulder lapel, sunglasses, or hat. They can record video and audio during public interactions. It’s widely believed this technology can help increase transparency and rebuild trust between communities and police.
In 2013, one-third of the nation’s local police departments used body cameras, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports. Facing mounting pressure to reform policing, the Obama administration launched a $23 million pilot program in 2015 to help law enforcement agencies adopt the technology. The following year, nearly half of the country’s general-purpose law enforcement agencies possessed the devices.
Many state legislatures also passed legislation regulating how the devices are used and footage is shared. Nevada and South Carolina require all law enforcement agencies to use body cameras. Illinois is working on a similar bill. However, none of these laws enforce penalties for noncompliance.
Now, let’s explore police body cameras pros and cons before diving into partisan viewpoints.
Pros of Police Body Cameras
First, police body cameras increase transparency in policing. When used properly, the devices can record video and audio of exactly what occurred during public interaction, from the officer’s point of view. Releasing unaltered recordings provides citizens with greater insight into the circumstances and decisions made during controversial incidents. In the past, communities relied heavily on witness accounts and waited months for agencies to release findings from internal investigations. Many believe that releasing video footage can immediately hold officers more accountable for their actions and improve community-police relations.
Similarly, police body camera footage can serve as objective evidence, allowing the justice system to rely less on inherently biased testimony. Additionally, when police body cameras are present, all parties involved are further assured their actions won’t be solely judged on outside perspectives.
The mere presence of police body cameras at the scene may also help improve both citizen and police behavior. One year-long study conducted on UK and US police forces found a 93 percent decline in citizen complaints against police. Researchers believe in this case, the use of recording devices may have cooled potentially volatile behavior from both sides.
Cons of Police Body Cameras
Although police body cameras are now commonplace in US law enforcement, pressing concerns still exist.
For one, there’s no conclusive evidence that police body cameras alone reduce use of force in policing. The nonpartisan Pew Trust reports recent studies show mixed results. Five studies found a decrease in use of force among officers wearing cameras, whereas eight experiments found no statistically significant difference. Policing experts asserted that policies governing their use play a large role in determining device effectiveness.
Likewise, policies and procedures surrounding police body cameras can splinter police-community relations. Police chiefs, politicians, and citizens often hold differing views on when police should review, release, and delete footage. Disagreements over these important factors can negatively impact police-community relations, despite the investment.
Police body cameras also exacerbate privacy concerns. Some critics liken the devices to mass surveillance by the state, NBC News reports. Others worry that facial recognition technology can be used to unlawfully track individuals and increase racial bias in policing.
Finally, the cost of police body camera infrastructure hinders some jurisdictions from adopting the technology. While the devices are relatively affordable, Time reports agencies now wrestle with steep data storage costs.
Police Body Cameras Pros and Cons: Where Both Sides Stand
At the federal level, both Republicans and Democrats support police body cameras. In June 2020, House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The bill would require uniformed federal police officers to wear body cameras, and state and local law enforcement agencies to spend existing federal funds on the devices. In response, Senate Republicans introduced the JUSTICE Act. It includes a grant program to help agencies purchase and implement body cameras. Neither bill advanced, although negotiations continued in April 2021.
Unlike in 2015, however, police body cameras play a smaller role in the police reform debate six years later. Current partisan sticking points: whether to ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, and eliminate qualified immunity for police.
At the local level, cities that haven’t implemented the devices contend with how — not whether — to do so. As one official in Madison, Wis., stated: “We are increasingly an outlier.”
Regardless, disputes over releasing video of fatal police encounters persist. Despite nightly protests, police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, won’t release video of the fatal officer-involved shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. until the official investigation is complete. In contrast, Columbus, Ohio, police released footage of the fatal shooting of Ma’Khia Bryant the same day it occurred.