Police Body-Worn Cameras: Perspectives from External Stakeholders
Changes made within policing carry significant downstream implications for the rest of the criminal justice system and for surrounding communities. The relatively recent expansion in police body-worn camera (BWC) programs across U.S. police agencies represents one such change that will have a wide impact on stakeholders both inside and outside the system. We investigated perceptions of BWCs among stakeholders external to two police departments that recently deployed the new technology. Our study participants included courtroom personnel (including prosecutors, and defense attorneys, and judges who work with BWC video footage evidence), professionals who work cooperatively with police in the field (and therefore may be recorded on the BWCs), city leaders, civilian oversight professionals, and victim advocates. Findings from interviews with these stakeholders offer directions for BWC implementation and implications for the technology’s larger social impact.
Stakeholders as a whole were highly supportive of their police department’s decision to implement BWCs. Collectively, they believed BWCs improve the working environment for police officers, offer unique evidentiary value in the courtroom, encourage police accountability, and improve citizen trust in police. Combined with high levels of support from officers and citizens, the findings suggest the external environment is ripe for the continued implementation of BWCs.
On the other hand, stakeholders reported some personal concerns about BWCs that were often specific to their profession or community position. Courtroom personnel described the resource burden that BWC video evidence imposes on their offices. A number of stakeholders also felt the public has unrealistic expectations about the potential benefits of BWCs and video evidence in general, and they also noted that juries will need proper education on the limitations of video evidence. The biggest concern reported by stakeholders was that BWCs in their jurisdictions had been deployed before policies were fully developed and before legal requirements related to BWCs had been properly articulated. They worried that privacy laws and officer camera activation policies were still open to interpretation and could be problematic for individuals recorded on a BWC.
These findings suggest external stakeholders have locally- and professionally-specific concerns that should be taken into consideration prior to moving forward with BWC deployment. We make the following four recommendations for departments pursuing BWC programs:
- Departments should work to identify a comprehensive group of external stakeholders, inform them of BWC deployment, and involve them in the policy development and implementation processes.
- Agencies should gather information on external stakeholders’ perceptions and concerns about BWCs, and revisit them over time during significant BWC program-transition points.
- Police departments should carry out a pilot study of BWCs with a small group of officers and revisit stakeholders’ perceptions once they have had some experience integrating the technology into their workflow.
- Agencies should establish specific and thorough policies regarding the use of BWCs and the processing of evidence, based on the recommendations found in the Bureau of Justice Assistance Body-Worn Camera Toolkit.
A successful BWC program relies in part on BWC acceptance from external community stakeholders. Without this buy-in, the benefits of BWCs will not be fully realized.
Natalie Todak is an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama with research interests in policing, race and gender in criminal justice and qualitative research methods. Janne Gaub is an Assistant Professor at East Carolina University and her research interests center on gender, with a particular emphasis on policing. Dr. Michael White is the Co-Director and Subject Matter Expert on the BWC TTA Team, and a Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University.