How body cams protect police legally and physically

The research shows that legal and physical protections are major benefits of adding a BWC to a patrol officer's toolkit


Research shows that after implementing the use of body-worn cameras, law enforcement agencies witness a decrease in the number of frivolous complaints filed against cops by members of the public. In conjunction with this decline, some agencies have also witnessed a reduction in the number of assaults on officers when citizens realize their aggressive behavior is being recorded.

Several recent studies about the efficacy of BWCs exist, and they are accessible to law enforcement agencies. It is worth the effort for agencies to explore and review this existing body of research to inform critical management and training decisions. Whether it’s a decision about BWC procurement, its utility or deployment, case law or data management, there is a good probability research exists to support an agency’s next steps.

This article reviews two of the major benefits of adding a BWC to a patrol officer's toolkit.

Several recent studies about the efficacy of BWCs exist, and they are accessible to law enforcement agencies. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Several recent studies about the efficacy of BWCs exist, and they are accessible to law enforcement agencies. (Photo/PoliceOne)

Legal protection

Northwestern University applied one of the best types of research designs on BWCs. The researchers did a randomized controlled trial about the effects of BWCs on police activity and citizen encounters in Las Vegas. Randomized controlled trials are considered leading designs because they essentially remove selection bias.  

This study revealed that “officers equipped with body-worn cameras generated fewer complaints and use of force reports relative to officers without cameras. BWC officers also made more arrests and issued more citations than their non-BWC counterparts. The findings of this randomized controlled trial raise the possibility that planning for the placement of BWCs on officers should consider the competing effects of improvement in civilian perceptions of police generated by reductions in complaints and use of force incidents and of public concerns about increased enforcement activity.”

Similarly, in a separate randomized controlled study in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology, the researchers were seeking to answer whether “BWCs reduce the prevalence of use-of-force and/or citizens’ complaints against the police.” Their findings revealed a reduction in complaints against officers, and “the likelihood of force being used in control conditions were roughly twice those in experimental conditions.”

Physical protection

Several studies have explored whether BWCs provide officer protection. The general notion is that citizens are less likely to assault officers if they know they are being recorded. In a study published in Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, the authors reviewed data from a randomized control trial at the Spokane (WA) Police Department. Specifically, the researchers reviewed “the effects of BWCs on use of force, complaints against officers, and officer injuries, using more than three years of official department data pre- and post-BWC deployment.”

The findings from this study revealed that “after BWC deployment, the percentage of officers with a complaint in each group declined by 50 percent and 78 percent (Control and Treatment, respectively); the percentage of officers with a use of force declined notably (39 percent) for one group only. The reductions disappeared after six months for the Treatment group. There was no relationship between BWCs and officer injuries.”

What this means

There are a few takeaways from this review for law enforcement.

First, there is an existing body of empirical research about BWCs available for all agencies to review and use. To truly bridge the gap between BWC theory and practice, law enforcement agencies must do their due diligence and apply the findings from this body of work versus relying on anecdotal data to inform decision-making. The ability to access this research and data to guide policy and practice is huge win for law enforcement.

Second, based on the selected studies reviewed for this article, it appears that BWCs offer agencies considerable legal protection.

Finally, based on this research, officers wearing BWCs are less likely to have citizen complaints filed against them.

Conclusion

This article referenced just a few bodies of existing empirical research on BWCs that support how the technology protects police officers legally and physically.

There are, of course, additional studies that show mixed results about BWCs and how agencies use them. There are several variables that agencies need to consider that may alter whether BWCs have an effect (e.g., officers’ discretion about recording). It is also difficult to generalize behavior (officer and citizens) across communities given how varied police behavior across jurisdictions.

The bottom line is that there is a tremendous amount of research that supports a law enforcement agency’s decision to deploy BWCs.

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