Police body cameras are equipment that work to record audio, video, and photographic evidence during events when officers and other law enforcement officials encounter the public in some way. Most officers wear the cameras on the torso of the body on the uniform in a manner similar to the military or general public, only in ways to address their specific needs for enforcing the law.
The first experiments with this technology in the policing industry occurred in 1998, when the devices were significantly bulky and difficult to carry around. Over the past 20 years, the quality of the video has gone up while the size and weight of it has gone down. Some can be mounted on the shoulder, while others are placed on the helmet or glasses of the officer. There are also chest-mounted options available on some forces. Most cameras weigh between 2-5 ounces today.
Most police body cameras offer HD-quality video while providing night vision, infrared capabilities, and varying degrees of view. Some come with automatic triggers that engage the device whenever a weapon is pulled from its holster, a siren activates, or the door to the officer’s vehicle opens.
Despite their many benefits, there are still some critical disadvantages to consider with this system of recording as well. These are the pros and cons of policy body cameras to review.
List of the Pros of Police Body Cameras
1. This technology can provide a clear picture of what happens in real time.
Although a mounted police camera does not pick up everything that a police officer sees when responding to an incident, the recording from this equipment can help to provide a clearer picture of what was happening at the time. When there is a complex situation that occurs in the community, the various reports written by law enforcement officers may not provide all of the context needed to interpret or visualize the data of the case. Offering video reduces a lot of the uncertainty.
Because of this advantage, about one-third of police departments across the United States have implemented the use of body cameras. It is also a technology embraced by the general public, which means we can often see both perspectives of an incident now independent of reports, opinions, or bias.
2. It improves the behavior of the officers and their suspects.
Most people behave better when they know that there is a layer of accountability that could get them into trouble. That’s why you keep an eye on the police officer in the rearview mirror when they drive by you on the road. It’s not because you have a guilty conscience (although this is possible). You are checking to see if your decisions were deemed to be acceptable in the eyes of the law.
The presence of a police body camera does that during an incident. People who know that they are being filmed are less likely to be aggressive with the officer or accuse them of something that didn’t happen because the evidence will be right there on video. This technology can also hold law enforcement officials accountable for their decisions, which creates better choices.
3. Police body cameras give officers a new tool for self-evaluation.
The videos that come from police body cameras allow officers to evaluate their conduct after-the-fact to determine if there were different outcomes possible. Others can review the situation with them to recommend alternative actions to facilitate a helpful and non-threatening learning process. It is a response that is similar to seeing yourself on television or reviewing a play as an athlete for the first time. You’ll cringe a bit as you evaluate your performance, but it also serves as a motivational tool to do better the next time.
Departments can also use this advantage to train new officers in the future when complex situations are handled in a specific way. This process would allow police agencies to advance professionalism amongst new recruits while providing more consistency with the implementation of policy.
4. The technology does not get in the way of the officer.
Police officers are responsible for plenty of equipment during their shift. Some officials might bristle at the idea of adding something else to do, but the cameras used as part of their duties are not cumbersome, bulky, or obtrusive. Most work well with the existing uniform so that one hardly knows it is there. The smallest cameras are about the size of a Chapstick and can mount almost anywhere on the body. Even with the battery back included with the device, most people don’t even notice it is there unless they need to use it.
5. There is a reduction in community complaints with body cameras.
The earliest results from this technology started a trend that other police departments around the world started watching. The Rialto police force in California found that their use of body cameras while on duty led to an over 87% decrease in the number of officer complaints received by the community. This technology also led to a 59% reduction in the use of force in just one year. Almost every other department sees a similar result.
Because there are fewer complaints to investigate, communities are seeing less time and fewer resources spent on civil litigation. It can also serve as a tool to highlight the fantastic actions that officers take in their community every day that are often unnoticed.
6. Video footage can help to speed up some court cases.
The video footage from a police body camera can help to speed up court proceedings because it offers indisputable proof in some situations. This unique evidence could lead to a reduction in court costs for the community, helping the investment into this technology to pay for itself over time. Departments which have implemented this technology have found that there can be an increase in pre-trial plea bargains, settlements, or an increased rate of convictions because of the video footage that can be supplied to the court.
7. Officers are no longer under an obligation in some communities to notify the public that they are recording.
There are some best practices in the law enforcement community which tell officers to let people know that they are being recorded with a police contact. State laws have changed some in the United States over the past 20 years, shifting the responsibility to the individual to see that there is a camera placed on the officer to understand that they are on video. Some states have taken the extra step in removing collected video footage under the Right to Know laws to reduce public information requests from turning up sensitive information.
8. It can provide corroborating evidence in some cases.
Footage captured by police body cameras can also be used as evidence in various cases, with proponents suggesting that the footage can help to document the nature and occurrence of various types of crime in a community. It could even lead to a reduction in the amount of paperwork that officers must file for each case since the incident in question is captured on film right there.
9. The use of cameras can lead to an increase in the number of arrests and citations.
Through a combined effort of the NIJ and CAN, a randomized controlled trial of 400 police officers in Las Vegas found that when officials wore a camera, then there were fewer complaints from citizens and use-of-force reports when compared to those who did not wear them. The officers who worn cameras also issued more citations and performed more arrests per capita than those who were not given this technology.
List of the Cons of Police Body Cameras
1. Body cameras can sometimes see what officers cannot observe.
Ever since the first body cameras were worn by police officers, there has been a debate about the capabilities of this technology compared to the circumstances that someone faces in a real-time situation. A device that can detect infrared images might show in retrospect that a suspect was not armed, but a police officer in the dark would have no way of knowing this if that individual was pretending to reach for a weapon. Even though the camera can record the incident in question, it cannot replicate the thinking processes of the human. What may appear to be illegal may not be because the audio and video can be taking out of context.
2. It only works when the police officer uses it correctly.
Buffering is one of the most critical features in body cameras for police work. This option allows for the equipment to pre-record, operating continuously while storing the most recent 30 seconds of footage. If the officer presses the record switch, then that data is kept. If this action is not taken, then the recording will be deleted on a first in, first out basis. Although this process allows the officer to retain video of everything that occurred and can provide context to an incident, mismanagement can also cause the evidence to be deleted.
3. The cost of body cameras is something that police departments must consider.
State budgets in the U.S. are tight across the board. Some are just now recovering since the last economic downturn in 2007-2009. That means the price tag associated with police body camera implementation might be too high for an agency to manage. Most units are priced somewhere between $400 to $600 each, so a department of substantial size could easily reach into six figures as a capital investment without much effort. If a community has not planned for it, then no amount of pushing will change the fact that there isn’t enough money to purchase the technology.
A market survey from the National Institute of Justice detailing 18 different models of policy body cameras found that the price could be as high as $1,000.
4. There are privacy concerns to consider with policy body cameras.
When police body cameras are introduced to the community, then everyone needs to know immediately that they are on camera whenever law enforcement is present. If things aren’t going well for them, then there is a need to be okay with the fact that they are being filmed. This issue means that officers will interact with citizens during some of their most vulnerable moments. Someone through the public records or with an information request could ask to see video from an incident in a person’s home. They can ask to see footage of specific people being the victim of a crime.
Some departments allow their officers to turn off their cameras during sensitive moments, but this disadvantage also means that the technology might not be engaged during an emergency situation. American society is still struggling with the balance of needing transparency and the rights afforded by the Fourth Amendment.
5. Video storage adds another level of complexity to evidence management.
The traditional method of collecting evidence is to collect it, label it, and then physically store it in a secure location. Digital storage doesn’t quite have the same “lock and key” effect, so some police departments are struggling to manage how to protect the integrity of their video while still having it accessible. It saves some time compared to gathering, organizing, and tracking digital images, but video requires an extensive system of storage because of its size.
This issue involves more than having a place that is secure for storage. One must also consider the chain of custody when gathering footage from a police body camera. Agencies must prove that it never had an opportunity to be altered from the original, so there are legitimate concerns in place over the authenticity of some evidence. Most departments only save video for 90 days to limit the impact of this disadvantage.
6. It creates adaptability problems for some officers.
When someone tells you to immediately start doing your job differently after you’ve put in 10 or 20 years on the job, then it makes your role in the community feel a little uncomfortable. Change is always a challenge, even in the best of situations. The outcomes are generally positive with police body cameras, but there tends to be a lot of initial friction from veteran officers on the force. If departments rush quickly to this technology because of outside pressure from the general public, then the disadvantages here can be magnified numerous times.
Departments must create polices that speak clearly and consistently to how video is gathered, stored, and used. Funding must be secured before introducing cameras to the force. It is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, even if there are agencies who do their best to implement this technology in such a way.
7. The financial need of body cameras is an ongoing cost to consider.
The initial expense of a police body camera is only the first consideration when looking at what a community’s budget must be for this technology. The ongoing financial investment includes necessary hardware upgrades, software installation and maintenance, officer training on every update, and a continuing cost for onboarding when new members join the force. These costs are not always incorporated into the long-term budget in the rush to get these cameras on the streets, which means it can be a struggle to manage this equipment after a couple of years of using it.
8. There can be public misperceptions about the usefulness of body cameras.
There are public misconceptions about the quality of police body camera technologies and the quantity of video that departments obtain over the course of each shift. The entertainment industries make it seem like video is available in an endless supply, but that is simply not the case. There are times when a camera can malfunction for legitimate reasons, an officer might not turn it on, or it could be accidentally turned off without there being an ill intent. Some juries may not recognize these facts.
There is also the issue of having the cameras being equal to, if not better, than humans when capturing the details of an event. This conversation is more about the societal preferences of divergent thinking when compared to convergent thinking. What an officer sees can still be very different from what the camera records.
9. It may stop some witnesses from coming forward.
We have already seen the visceral reactions from police officers when they find out that citizens are recording their encounters in public. Witnesses in a case that officers investigate may encounter the same issue, not wanting to appear on camera for fear of reprisal. Although the accountability that this technology offers often outweighs this disadvantage, there will be some instances where suspects might go free simply because the presence of a camera discouraged authentic testimony.
10. Technological issues could prevent the policy body cameras from working sometimes.
Police body cameras are a technology, just like smartphones, laptops, or automobiles. There are times when this equipment will break down, and it usually happens in the worst of circumstances. A battery might die for no reason, there might be an obstruction on the lens of the camera, or the video footage might fail to store. There can be damaged components in a struggle and other failures that occur too. This outcome could result in missing witness statements, behavioral observations in the field, and other evidence collection concerns which could adversely impact the outcome of some cases.
Verdict on the Pros and Cons of Police Body Cameras
The general public in the United States is in favor of police officers wearing cameras across all demographics. No matter where someone lands on the political or ideological spectrum, the concept of having more accountability with law enforcement officials is strongly desired. Although there are valid concerns to think about with this technology, most officers show a robust support for cameras once they see how it can protect them in addition to offering accountability to the public.
This technology provides a way for the modern police force to strengthen the relationships they have with their community as well. The simple act of trying to be more accountable creates another layer of trust. That makes it much easier for officers to do what they do best: to serve and protect.
The pros and cons of police body cameras will certainly cause more debates in time as this technology continues to evolve. It may even change our entire outlook on what it means to be a police officer in the future. As for today, most departments around the world are finding that the presence of a camera becomes a great equalizer when engaging with their community. That means everyone has a better chance of going home at the end of the day.
Natalie Regoli is a seasoned writer, who is also our editor-in-chief. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our editor-in-chief a message here.