How police body cams have impacted modern policing
Today, more than 10 years after Axon introduced the Axon Body body-worn camera (BWC), the police body cam is at the forefront of modern policing. Seven US states now mandate the use of BWCs by law enforcement officers, and many more have adopted funding to provide them. Among the public, 89% of people support requiring police to wear BWCs, and more and more agencies have come to depend on BWCs to aid in officer training, provide public transparency and protect officers from false accusations.
While there are numerous benefits of police body cameras, there are some concerns, such as privacy, data storage, cost, and potential bias. When examining how this technology is changing modern policing, it’s important to explore the pros and cons of police body cams to achieve a holistic view of the impact they have had on public safety.
Police body cams: Pros
Advocates for police body cams assert the multitude of advantages they bring to both public safety and the professionalism of law enforcement officials.
Training and accountability
At most agencies, an officer will enter a probationary period after graduating from the police academy. During this time, the officer is still “in training” and being observed by a senior officer. A police body cam can be a crucial part of this training, allowing both the probationary officer and their superiors to observe events after the fact and break down what went right and what went wrong. In this way, the police body cam becomes an invaluable tool in the officer’s training.
Even after an officer has left the probationary period, there are benefits to using a police body cam to debrief difficult incidents after the fact and review an officer’s performance. Having a concrete, factual record of events removes ambiguity and makes it more likely officers will learn from any missteps.
The record provided by a police body cam also helps to hold officers accountable for their actions and can even help prevent negative incidents from occurring. A 2017 study found that officers wearing BWCs generated fewer use-of-force reports and complaints from citizens compared to those not wearing a body cam, while a 2021 paper described a 17% reduction in complaints against officers wearing body cams and a 10% reduction in the use of force.
Transparency and community relations
Police in some communities are viewed with distrust, often relating to use-of-force allegations and questions about encounters between police and community members. Police body cams can help alleviate this distrust by providing community members with better transparency into police actions. Police body cams can also allay citizen concerns by providing clear documentation of encounters to shore up police officers’ versions of events.
Considering the prevalence of smartphone use and users' ability to edit captured footage to portray events with a bias, having solid video evidence of police encounters is crucial to better understanding police actions. Police body cams provide a record of events from the officers’ point of view, often highlighting when an officer has gone above and beyond. For this reason and others, two-thirds of police officers (66%) support the use of police body cams.
Another benefit of police body cameras is the hard criminal evidence they provide. It is said that a picture speaks a thousand words, but video magnifies that vocabulary exponentially. Footage captured by body-worn cameras can be used as evidence for arrests and prosecutions, potentially enhancing the chances of a successful prosecution and even reducing the amount of time an officer spends on paperwork.
A 2014 study demonstrated that officers wearing body-worn cameras contributed to more arrests and a higher number of guilty pleas in prosecution. This demonstrates that the police body cam can be an invaluable tool in modern policing, actually helping make the job easier and officers more successful.
People tend to focus on the negative when it comes to police behavior, but one of the positive effects of police body cameras is they also capture when an officer gets it right. BWC footage can provide valuable examples of proper policing, boosting force morale and reinforcing proper practices.
Police body cams also provide a shield for officers themselves, protecting them against false accusations. A 2018 incident in Texas highlighted the impact of BWCs when footage from a Texas State Trooper’s body cam was used to exonerate the officer from charges of sexual assault.
After a routine traffic stop of a woman suspected of driving under the influence, the trooper was accused of offering to let the woman go if she performed sexual favors. The footage from the trooper’s body cam proved otherwise. In the nearly two hours of footage from the trooper’s BWC he could be seen stopping the woman, performing a field sobriety test, and taking her into custody, but performing none of the abuses he was accused of. The accusation was dismissed, and the woman’s attorney later recanted.
Police body cams: Cons
BWC technology, however, is still controversial in some circles. Objections to the usage of police body cams range from the philosophical to the practical.
With many agencies around the country struggling with insufficient funding, the additional cost of BWCs may seem to be unbearable. But a 2017 study by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service found that the annual costs per user of police body cams are more than offset by savings realized by fewer complaints against officers and the reduced time to resolve complaints offered by evidence gathered by BWCs.
The cost of deploying BWCs is also often underwritten by local and state governments. Given the many benefits of police body cams, many state legislatures are enacting funding specifically to empower agencies to procure the technology.
Prevalent use of BWCs, many of which can record continuously for 12 or more hours, raises issues of what to do with all of that footage. Data storage costs can add to an even greater expense for agencies already struggling to absorb the cost of police body cams. These costs must be factored into budgeting, but the benefits of stored data can outweigh the costs.
Footage stored in a digital evidence management system (DEMS) can be shared with prosecutors and other legal personnel, streamlining the discovery process and greatly enhancing the ability to prosecute crimes.
Privacy and Bias
Perhaps the most sensitive concern about BWCs is one of privacy. Police body cams can capture people at some of the worst moments; opponents of police body cams worry that prejudicial or embarrassing footage might be released without their consent, regardless of their actual involvement in a crime.
As BWC usage becomes more commonplace, agencies will have to adopt stringent policies regarding when to release police body cam footage and what kinds of footage to release. Some legislatures have already addressed this challenge, passing laws that require police to inform a person they are being recorded.
There is also the issue of bias. Some suggest that BWC recordings are inherently biased toward officers by showing only one side of an encounter, often focused on a potential suspect and their actions and not displaying the full view of the officer. Axon addresses this challenge with a greater field of view on the Axon Body 4 and the Flex POV module, providing multiple points of view with a single device.
Legislation is also being enacted to limit how long captured footage can be stored, how it can be used and for what purpose it can be released. These laws aim to make it less likely that police body cams can be misused and to allay community mistrust in the technology.
Overall, the benefits of police body cameras point to quite simply better policing, improving transparency and accountability, building community trust, and ensuring that offenders are convicted. To learn more about how Axon has contributed to the development of the modern BWC and to see the latest features of its current line-up, visit the Axon Body 4 product page.