Understanding the Costs and Benefits of Implementing a BWC Program

Elliot Harkavy, BWC TTA Technology Advisor, CNA and Dr. Chip Coldren, BWC TTA Program Director, CNA

 

Considering BWC Costs and Benefits

Recent news reports have discussed the costs and benefits of body-worn cameras (BWCs). A Washington Post article on January 21, 2019, reported that some police departments have abandoned their BWC programs, primarily because of the high cost of storing BWC footage files.[1] A January 27 editorial in The Buffalo News suggested that BWCs can be worth their costs when, for example, they exonerate police officers from complaints of excessive use of force, and that municipalities can find multiple sources of funding for BWC programs.[2]

Both viewpoints are valid. Yes, the overall costs of BWC programs, including equipment purchase, licensing, technology infrastructure, training, responding to requests for video footage (and redacting images when required), and managing and storing video files can be high in some instances. Particular concerns have been raised about the high costs of storing video, which is now identified as the core cost driver for BWC programs. On the other hand, there are potential savings to be gained from BWCs, and other benefits that may be difficult to quantify.

CNA’s research on BWCs in Las Vegas, Nevada, revealed that they produced substantial and statistically significant reductions in complaints against officers and use of force incidents when compared with a randomly selected control group of officers without BWCs.[3] While this research represents one study conducted in one jurisdiction, and while other jurisdictions may have different, even contradictory experiences, reductions in complaints and use of force incidents have been documented in other studies. Complaints and use of force incidents can require thorough investigations, which drain department resources. When BWCs substantially reduce the number of complaints against officers, for example, they may also reduce the costs involved in investigating those complaints. Such cost savings could equal or surpass the cost of the BWC program, or they might offset some of the BWC program costs. Additionally, any reductions in expensive civil suits that a department settles through cash payouts should also be added to the cost savings. These cost factors, may of course, vary by agency. Not all agencies have the same high levels of citizen complaints and use of force incidents, this may be particularly true of rural and suburban agencies and in smaller agencies. The resources and costs for performing related investigations were well documented and quantified in the research study we conducted, but the cost may be more nebulous and lower in other agencies, and there may be other ‘hidden’ or less well documented BWC program costs that may arise.

It is understandable that these agencies might not benefit from the reductions in these incidents brought about by BWCs, and often they do not feel they need the transparency and improved community relations that larger urban departments seek with their BWC programs. While it is understandable that smaller or less urban departments might choose not to implement BWC programs, they should consider that the agency may miss out on some of the key BWC benefits that are harder to monetarily quantify, including the evidentiary benefit of BWC for investigation and prosecution. Relatively little research has been done in measuring the evidentiary benefits of BWC use. More research is needed to quantify the benefits of BWC in terms of improved outcomes and potential saving in criminal justice processing costs (e.g., more guilty pleas and expediting trials).

The Calming Effect of BWCs

One must also consider how BWC video can help prevent community unrest resulting from one viral video that only tells half the story. For example, there was an incident in Wildwood, New Jersey, in May 2018 in which a video showed officers wrestling a young mother, in front of her child, to the ground to arrest her for underage drinking.[4] That video quickly went viral, causing public anger against the Wildwood Police Department and the town, which depends heavily on tourism. The public outcries settled down after the Wildwood Police Department released the BWC video of the event, showing the officers politely interacting with the woman until she became abusive and violent towards them. It then showed them trying to de-escalate the situation before taking the action to arrest. [5] Other benefits of video include the ability to review and analyze officer behavior to improve police interactions with the public.

Many agencies that implemented BWCs use officer video for training and other officer improvement activities. Trainers and supervisors can regularly review video footage with officers to reinforce what went right and try to improve even minor mistakes. Learning from mistakes is an essential element of any continuous improvement program, and BWCs help facilitate such continuous improvement efforts. 

At the 2018 US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Body-Worn Camera Perception Summit, participants reported that officers in training consider BWC videos more credible than staged training videos.

Police agencies large and small should consider other benefits of BWC programs, some of which do not easily lend themselves to tangible cost-benefit calculations. Research has shown, for example, that the public’s view of police legitimacy[6],[7] and procedural justice[8] improves with BWC programs and that the availability of BWC video enhances conviction rates for some crimes.[9] There are other hypothesized (though as of yet untested) benefits to be realized from BWC programs, such as improved officer morale and safety. In some instances, the public and political expectation that officers will utilize BWCs may justify the daunting program costs.  This sentiment was the reason cited for Hillsborough County, Florida, Sheriff's Office reversal of a previous decision not to pursue BWC due to the initial perceived of the high cost of video storage.[10] Sheriff Chad Chronister stated, “I am confident in the professionalism and integrity of our deputies, but I recognize the need for transparency to our citizens, particularly as it relates to the use of deadly force or the drawing of a firearm."

Multiple sources, including the 2018 DHS National BWC Perception Summit, report that some prosecutors are now reluctant to prosecute cases where BWC video was not available. As juries become more accustomed to video evidence, especially BWC video, it may become more difficult for law enforcement agencies without BWCs to have their cases successfully prosecuted.[11] The American Civil Liberties (ACLU) has backed that position with a 2016 report it produced in partnership with UC Berkeley Law School, entitled “No Tape, No Testimony.”[12] 

A Cost Calculating Tool for BWC Programs

CNA recently developed a BWC Cost Estimator tool to help agencies better understand and plan for the costs of their BWC programs, as well as anticipate their potential benefits. CNA developed the BWC Program Cost Estimator as a tool to guide police agencies through considerations of various cost issues, such as equipment, licensing, storage, training, and more, to help them think more concretely about BWC cost issues and plan for the long-term costs (up to five years) and benefits of a BWC program. The Cost Estimator is a spreadsheet-based tool that allows a department to enter real or estimated cost and cost-related data for a series of variables and estimate the current and future costs of a BWC program and better estimate whether the anticipated benefits of its BWC program will offset program costs in part or in whole. This calculator helps with planning activities, allowing departments to understand different BWC program cost drivers and potential savings.

The calculator is intended to guide thinking about the costs and benefits of a BWC program and provides for making low-, medium-, and high-cost and benefit assumptions to help jurisdictions gauge what future costs or savings might be.

As policy makers, local governments, and police agencies must carefully consider whether to implement or abandon BWC programs, they should consider several factors beyond the costs of equipment, storage, and BWC program maintenance. For medium and large departments, the savings generated by reduced complaints, use of force incidents, and civil lawsuits may recoup some or all of the program costs. All departments should consider the less tangible and more indirect benefits of BWCs—public satisfaction, officer safety, officer satisfaction, enhanced training, enhanced tactics, enhanced protocols, enhanced evidentiary value, to mention a few—and factor them into decision making processes regarding BWC programs 


Elliot Harkavy has nearly 30 years’ experience in homeland security, strategic planning, market strategy, competitive intelligence, IT planning and operations improvement. Mr. Harkavy spent 4 years with the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (MWCOG) coordinating law enforcement across the National Capital Region (NCR) and 8 years with the Department of Homeland Security as part of FEMA’s Operations directorate and Office of Disability Integration and Coordination. In his capacity with MWCOG, he worked with over 1700 public safety officials across the NCR to identify, plan for, respond to and recover from public safety threats.  He convened over 27 regional public safety committees, subcommittees and working groups, including the Regional Police Chiefs and Corrections Chiefs committees and subcommittees addressing training, special operations units, technologies, including communications, body-worn cameras, drones, and numerous other issues central to modern law enforcement.

 

Dr. James R. “Chip” Coldren, Jr., is the Project Director on BWC TTA and is a Managing Director for the Safety and Security Division at CNA Corporation. He has more than 35 years of experience with research; program and policy evaluation; policy development; advocacy; development, coordination, and delivery of training and technical assistance; and justice system reform. In addition to serving as the Project Director on BWC TTA, Dr. Coldren is also the National Project Director for the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Strategies for Policing Innovation program and BJA National Public Safety Partnership. He also serves as Principal Investigator on two National Institute of Justice–funded research projects: a national study of equipment modalities and correctional officer safety, and a randomized experiment with body-worn cameras in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.


 

[1] Kindy, Kimberly. “Some U.S. police departments dump body-camera programs amid high costs”. Washington Post, January 21, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/some-us-police-departments-dump-body-camera-programs-amid-high-costs/2019/01/21/991f0e66-03ad-11e9-b6a9-0aa5c2fcc9e4_story.html?utm_term=.40f0386619c9&wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1

[2] “Editorial: Smaller police departments shouldn't give up on bodycams”. The Buffalo News. January 27, 2019, Retrieved from: https://buffalonews.com/2019/01/27/editorial-smaller-police-departments-shouldnt-give-up-on-body-cameras-over-high-costs/

[3] Braga, Anthony A., William H. Sousa, James R. Coldren, Jr., and Denise Rodriguez. 2018. “The Effects of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Activity and Police-Citizen Encounters: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 5(11). Retrieved from: https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol108/iss3/3

[4] YouTube Video. Posted May 28, 2018. NewsNowDC. Retrieved from:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QtaOLAZqhjE

[5] YouTube Video. Posted May 30, 2018. NJ.Com. Retrieved from:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQQ9xOhuFrk

[6] Braga, Anthony A., William H. Sousa, James R. Coldren, Jr., and Denise Rodriguez. 2018. “The Effects of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Activity and Police-Citizen Encounters: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 5(11). Retrieved from: https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol108/iss3/3

[7] Lawrence, Daniel, Bryce Peterson, Paige Thompson. 2018. “Community Views of Milwaukee’s Police Body-Worn Camera Program.” Retrieved from: https://www.urban.org/research/publication/community-views-milwaukees-police-body-worn-camera-program

[8] McCluskey, John D., Craig D. Uchida, Shellie E. Solomon, Alese Wooditch, Christine Connor, and Lauren Revier. (2019). Assessing the effects of body‐worn cameras on procedural justice in the Los Angeles Police Department. Criminology. 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1111/1745-9125.12201

[9] Hannaford-Agor, P. Are Body-Worn Cameras the New CSI Effect?. The Court Manager, 30(3). Retrieved from: http://www.ncsc-jurystudies.org/~/media/Microsites/Files/CJS/Jury%20News/JuryNews30-3_BodyWornCameras.ashx

[10] Marrero, Tony. “Once reluctant, Hillsborough sheriff now moving forward on body cameras for deputies”. Tampa Bay Times, July 10, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/body-worn-cameras-could-be-coming-to-hillsborough-county-sheriffs-office-20190710/

[11] Ibid.

[12] ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts and University of California, Berkeley School of Law. (November 2016).  No Tape, No Testimony: How Courts Can Ensure the Responsible Use of Body Cameras. Retrieved from: https://www.aclum.org/sites/default/files/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/ACLU_BodyCameras_11.21_final.pdf


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.