The past decade has seen a shift in public attitudes toward policing. A laundry list of high-profile killings, particularly of Black citizens, by police has caused periods of civil unrest, national conversations about the role of police in society, increased scrutiny of the broad powers they enjoy and sparked discussion about how to improve the institution of policing as a whole.
Police accountability is now a mainstream political issue with the majority of Americans supporting some kind of reform.
Body-worn cameras have become the go-to tool for state governments across the nation to address the concerns and inject some measure of accountability into municipal police departments.
The devices aren’t only popular with legislators, though, public support for the technology is overwhelming. A national survey conducted by the University of Maryland School of Public Policy in 2020 found that 90 percent of respondents across the political spectrum supported the use of body-worn cameras by police.
While body-worn cameras are popular among legislators, citizens and police alike — although the latter was initially resistant to the technology — evidence that the devices are an effective tool for police accountability is murky at best.
Despite the lack of strong evidence that body-worn cameras deter police use of force or lead to greater accountability, and with many smaller police departments ending their body-worn camera programs due to the high costs, the technology was made mandatory in Connecticut almost two years ago.
Body-worn cameras were first introduced to police departments in Connecticut following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting not only sparked a period of social unrest in Ferguson but also started a national conversation about the relationship between law enforcement and Black communities, the militarization of the police and the use of force by officers.
In October 2015, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy signed An Act Concerning Excessive Use of Force, a bill that contained a number of police reform tropes: The legislation encouraged departments to recruit minorities and prohibited them from hiring former officers who were fired or disciplined for serious misconduct. It also required that if police use of force resulted in a person’s death the incident must be investigated by a special prosecutor or a prosecutor in a different judicial district than where it occurred.
The bill also created a grant program to fund the purchase of body-worn cameras for state troopers, campus police and local police departments across the state. The grant program offered to reimburse departments for the purchase costs of the cameras themselves and the costs of the first year of storing the data.
However, the bill did not require departments to use body-worn cameras, and many departments did not apply for the grants. Even though police departments take up large portions of municipal budgets — Bridgeport for instance dedicated 18 percent, $102,312,652, of the city’s funds to police in 2020 — some police chiefs raised concerns about the long-term costs of storing the thousands of hours of footage the cameras capture.
Five years after the bill was approved, less than half of municipal police departments had received grants.
It wasn’t until another period of civil unrest and a national reckoning of systemic racism within law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by Minnesota police in May 2020 that the use of body-worn cameras became required.
About two months after Floyd’s death, on July 31st, 2020, Gov. Ned Lamont signed the police accountability bill, which expanded body-worn camera use for law enforcement, making the technology required for all sworn officers. However, in the year since the mandate took effect, it is unclear if all departments are in compliance with the new law; no state agency is tracking if police have purchased the cameras by the deadline.
While often touted as the solution to issues concerning police brutality, accountability and transparency, public attitudes towards police and police safety, evidence that body-worn cameras actually achieve the desired outcomes have been mixed.
Initially, research into the effects of body-worn cameras showed positive results. Researchers from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology published the first scientific study on the effects of body-worn cameras in 2014. The results of the experiment showed that the technology was effective at preventing escalation during police-public interactions on both sides.
During the 12-month experiment, which studied officers in Rialto, California, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59% and reports against officers dropped by 87% compared to the previous year’s figures.
The researchers said having knowledge that interactions were being recorded created a “self-awareness” in both officers and the public and suggested that body-worn cameras could serve as a “preventative treatment”, causing individuals to modify their behavior in response to the presence of the cameras.
While the researchers stressed that more research was needed before any definite conclusions could be made, the results of the study were cited by police departments around the world as justification for implementing the technology.
Since then, however, further research has muddied the waters on whether or not body-worn cameras have any positive effects on interactions with police.
In January 2022, the National Institute of Justice released a meta-analysis of 30 studies published between 2012 and 2020 that focused on the implementation of police-worn body cameras and the outcomes of their use. The analysis looked for effects on police use of force, assaults on officers, resistance by the public and traffic stops among other issues body cameras have been thought to remedy.
The analysis, which combined the results of the studies to determine overall trends, found that the use of body-worn cameras did not have a statistically significant impact on any of the outcomes the studies measured.
Other studies have found that body-worn cameras actually had negative impacts on police behavior. A study of the Phoenix, Arizona police department’s implementation of body cameras published in 2020, found that the officers assigned to use body-worn cameras were more likely to use force than officers who were not assigned to wear the devices. The difference was statistically significant and went against the expected outcome.
Although many studies into body-worn cameras show that they have no impact on policing, there have been some that show positive results. A recent study by the University of Chicago Crime Lab found that the technology is not only effective in reducing police use of force but also cost-effective.
The reason for the conflicting results, according to Jorge Camacho, a Clinical Lecturer in Policing and Law, and Policy Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, is that there is a general lack of data on police activities and behavior, which makes it difficult for researchers to come to an agreement on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras.
“There isn’t a clear consensus and I think part of the reason for that is that one we just don’t have a lot of great data on police activities generally, to begin with, so to study the impact of some particular variable on police behavior like body-worn cameras on use of force for example or on civilian complaints or on injuries, or anything like that is already made difficult because we just don’t already have a good baseline understanding of you know what the norm is,” Camacho said. “We don’t have a lot of great use-of-force data. We don’t have a lot of great complaint data. We don’t have a lot of great injury data. So, to try to study the impact of body-worn cameras on those metrics we’re already kind of hobbled in our ability to do so.”
Currently, Connecticut is one of only two states that independently collects and analyzes use-of-force reports from its police departments. But, since the state tracking incidents of force by police is a brand-new concept, there is no data available to compare the number of use-of-force incidents pre and post-implementation of body cameras.
In August 2022, Connecticut released its first analysis of police use of force in the state. The report was issued by the University of Connecticut’s Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy and drew on data from nearly 1,300 use-of-force reports submitted by 60 police departments for incidents in 2019 and 2020.
However, because of a lack of a standardized method to report use-of-force incidents and, although the law required all police departments to submit use-of-force reports, many chose not to comply. Thirty-one departments in 2019 and 24 departments in 2020 reported no use of force incidents. There were no penalties or accountability measures for not submitting data.
According to Camacho, the lack of compliance among police departments in gathering data on themselves isn’t just a Connecticut problem.
“Historically, police departments have been very hesitant to collect any kind of data that isn’t immediately useful to them from a departmental perspective. Something like use-of-force data, I think, could be very useful for a department to know. I think that it can specifically improve how police operations are handled simply from the point of view of the department right like efficiency and risk management and things like that,” Camacho said. “But for many departments, they view it as simply data collection for the purpose of scrutiny that, in their eyes, can only be negative.”
“And I think that’s a big part of the reason why data collection you know can be so poor. Another part of why data collection can be poor is because if you don’t have the infrastructure to collect data in the first place it takes time and a significant investment to build that infrastructure,” Camacho said. “Even something as mundane as changing arrest paperwork or changing you know the paperwork that you fill out to issue a parking violation or something like that costs money and it takes time to do. And you have to train officers on how to do it on how to accurately report the data that’s being recorded.”
Connecticut wasn’t the only state looking to make body-worn cameras the easy answer to address issues in policing following the Michael Brown shooting. Police departments across the country began receiving state and federal grants to purchase and implement the use of the devices in 2015. By the next year, the technology would see widespread use among law enforcement agencies.
A report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2018 on the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement agencies in the United States showed that by 2016, nearly half of general-purpose law enforcement offices and 80 percent of large police departments had acquired body cameras. Additionally, the report found that, of the agencies that had acquired body cameras, 86 percent of them had a formal policy in place for their use.
All of this came with a hefty price tag. From 2015 to 2019, the Department of Justice (DOJ) alone handed out $73 million in funding to over 400 law enforcement agencies for the purchase of body cameras. In 2022, the DOJ awarded over $20 million in additional grants to 35 recipients.
With upwards of $100 million in taxpayer funds spent on body-worn cameras to date and little evidence to support their efficacy in improving interactions with police, some have been left questioning who the technology is actually helping.
A 2020 report authored by a panel of criminal justice scholars, including Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler from the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, concluded that so far body-worn cameras have proven to be more helpful for prosecutors than it has been for advocates of police accountability.
“Body cameras were adopted for police accountability, but quickly have become yet one more tool for surveillance and collecting evidence for prosecution,” the report said. “Body cameras fail entirely as an accountability mechanism without a sound policy for release of the video to the public after critical incidents.”
The only policy Connecticut has in place regarding the release of body camera footage states that police are required to release dash or body camera footage upon request no later than 96 hours after an incident. However, in practice, the law hasn’t always been followed to the letter.
While Camacho noted that body-worn cameras serve other important functions, he agreed that the technology’s most effective and impactful consequence has not been on the accountability of police officers, but has been the collection of evidentiary footage to be used in prosecutions. Additionally, Camacho said, body-worn camera footage has been used as propaganda for police departments.
“They’ve found it to be an incredibly useful tool specifically for [collecting evidence] and also for helping police officers and departments continue to control the narrative,” Camacho said. “This is what we see a lot where body-worn camera [footage] that shows incidents that highlight the dangers that officers face right or the heroic actions that they take. That’s the kind of footage that’s much more easily released even in the absence of a request. What’s harder are the pieces of footage that show potentially illegal conduct or misconduct on the part of police officers.”
Police departments generally don’t want to release that kind of footage not only because it makes them look bad, according to Camacho, but also because it becomes evidence in their own internal investigations and in the investigations of other prosecuting agencies. While police departments usually decline to release footage immediately citing the damage it could do to their investigations, its not uncommon for those claims to be exaggerated.
“The adverse impacts of that release tend to be overstated,” Camacho said. I do think that by and large the release of a lot of this footage could happen much earlier than it typically happens.”
The advent of body cameras has had seemingly no effect on the number of killings by police. In fact, on average, police have killed more people every year since the technology began to be widely implemented in 2015.
Despite the federal government reporting fewer police killings each year since 2015, a recent report by the Washington Post found that police have shot and killed more people every year since. The investigation also found that the FBI database tracking police shootings only contained about one-third of the 7,000 shootings the Washington Post accounted for.
While the jury may still be out on whether body cameras have a positive effect on the variety of issues concerning policing, evidence suggests they haven’t had the desired effect on police accountability.
When body-worn cameras were implemented, one of the theories behind why they would be a successful tool for police reform was the idea that they would improve front-end accountability, or deter officer misconduct, because officers would know that their behavior is being recorded and feel less emboldened to misuse force and engage in misconduct.
Additionally, even if an officer was not prone to engage in misconduct at all, the surveillance of their actions would reinforce that they need to do things by the book. However, researchers say that theory has not panned out.
“The takeaways have been that that hasn’t really happened,” Camacho said. “There have been some studies that show that any impact on the front end tends to be strongest when body-worn cameras are initially rolled out, but then over time, certainly within a year, that impact starts to fade and officer conduct returns to whatever the previous baseline was.”
The best accountability mechanism body-worn cameras have been able to offer has been on the back end. Back-end accountability relies on body-worn camera footage to either prosecute police when they commit crimes or file civil lawsuits.
But, even on the back end, accountability has been exceedingly rare.
Nationally, according to data from Mapping Police Violence, 98.1 percent of killings by police from 2013 to 2022 have not resulted in the officers involved being charged with a crime. Even when police are charged, convictions are rare. Some cities don’t even report the names of officers involved in shootings.
Taxpayers are often the people facing the brunt of police accountability more than the officers themselves. Cities and municipalities routinely pay out settlements to those allegedly wronged by police misconduct. An investigation by the Washington Post found that over the last decade, the 25 largest police and sheriff’s departments have paid out nearly 40,000 lawsuits totaling over $3.2 billion to settle claims of police misconduct.
Additionally, the Post found that about half of the $3.2 billion that had been paid out to settle claims were against thousands of officers repeatedly accused of wrongdoing. Because the settlements rarely include an admission of guilt or wrongdoing, the officers themselves avoided any discipline or accountability.
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While body-worn cameras haven’t been the panacea legislators and reformers were hoping for, that’s not to say the technology is entirely useless. Camacho noted that the interactions the cameras record can still be valuable as an instruction tool.
“The footage that you capture using body-worn cameras can be used to educate new officers at the academy or new officers in-service training that they receive,” Camacho said. “It can be used to help police departments and civilian leaders better understand what’s actually happening in the streets in order to develop better policies that will both simultaneously improve outcomes and also be responsive to the realities of day-to-day policing.”
In a way, body-worn cameras have been a victim of high and unrealistic expectations, according to Camacho. He argues that in concert with improved training, supervision and departmental policies the technology could have a bigger impact than what they have had thus far.
“So, strangely enough, deemphasizing body-worn cameras as an accountability tool and focusing on other accountability measures, I think, will actually improve the ability of body-worn cameras to be an accountability tool,” Camacho said. “Not as a deterrent, but really as something that facilitates all of the other things that need to be in place for accountability to be effective”
However, recent events have seen the measures Camacho and advocates of police reform have suggested will reduce police violence fail in brutal, heart-breaking fashion, once again igniting calls for divestment from policing and the abolition of the institution.
Last month, the Memphis police released body camera footage of five police officers, all of whom are Black, savagely beating a Black man, Tyre Nichols, for over three minutes while screaming profanities. Nichols died from his injuries three days later. The reform actions that are commonly called for after incidents of police brutality — body cameras, diversity, less-than-lethal weapons, etc. — did not prevent the assault of Nichols.
In Atlanta, body cameras failed again when police shot and killed an activist who was protesting “Cop City”, a $90 million police training facility that is estimated to take up over 85 acres of wooded area near the city. The police say that after finding the protester, who went by “Tortuguita”, in a tent he shot at them without warning. Officers fired back and killed him, however, they have not provided any evidence to support their account and all of the officers present failed to activate their body cameras.
The reason why reforms fail, according to Alex S. Vitale, a professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, is that they do not address the basic role of police in society.
“The origins and function of the police are intimately tied to the management of inequalities of race and class,” Vitale wrote in his book, The End of Policing. “The suppression of workers and the tight surveillance and micromanagement of Black and brown lives have always been at the center of policing.”
According to Vitale, ending failed projects like the War on Drugs and broken windows policing and investing in people through the development of robust mental healthcare and the creation of affordable housing will do more to end police violence than reforms will.
“Any real agenda for police reform must replace police with empowered communities working to solve their own problems,” Vitale wrote. “Policing will never be a just or effective tool for community empowerment, much less racial justice.”
Much like the killings of George Floyd and Michael Brown, Nichols’ death appears to be another watershed moment in the country’s reckoning with policing.
In Connecticut, the video of Nichols’ assault sparked a statement from Gov. Ned Lamont and protests in Hartford and Manchester. State Sen. Herron Keyon Gaston, (D-Stratford) suggested that changes be made to the qualified immunity police receive.
With 2022 being a record setting year for killings by police and 2023 off to an inauspicious start, the national conversation around policing will likely not abate any time soon.
February 14, 2023 @ 7:05 pm
Replace police?? GTFOH with that commie stuff. Blacks commit more crimes and don’t respect the law. Period.