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The history of police body cameras: from invention to innovation

Several police officers stand in the middle of a street at night wearing helmets and body-worn cameras.

The police body camera has gone from being an experiment to become a foundational tool for law enforcement agencies around the globe

In short order, police body cameras have gone from pilot programs in small jurisdictions to widespread adoption in the modern global policing landscape. By recording interactions between police and the public, body cameras have decreased the number of complaints filed against officers while improving clearance rates. But when were police body cameras introduced? Who was the first to bring this technology to bear in criminal justice? What challenges has the technology faced, and how can we improve the tech and our usage? The history isn’t long, but it’s worth studying to better understand precisely how body-worn cameras can make the most impact on public safety, what their limitations are, and what the future may hold for this technology.

When did police body cameras start?

The history of body cameras on police begins with a 2005 pilot program in the UK counties of Devon and Cornwall. Police leadership hoped cameras would provide evidence in criminal cases to speed up the justice process, as offenders often pled guilty upon learning police held video evidence of the incident. They also believed keeping a record of interactions between police and civilians would improve accountability, transparency and trust while identifying opportunities for improvements in officer conduct. Initial results were promising: officers in the counties said the cameras deterred bad behavior and successfully provided strong evidence. Data seemed to support those claims, as violent crime decreased by 8% in the first 10 weeks of the six-month program. Over the next several years, similar pilot programs rolled out to departments across England, reaching London in 2014.

Later, in 2012, three American municipalities (Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona and Rialto, California) began their own police body camera pilot programs. Again, results were promising: Rialto reported an 88% reduction in complaints against law enforcement officers. Adoption of BWCs nevertheless remained limited to a few small departments scattered across the country, in part because of high equipment costs. That is, until 2014, when Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson. Conflicting testimony and racial tension led to public calls for increased police accountability. In response, President Barack Obama proposed that the federal government reimburse localities for half the cost of implementing police body cameras with the hope that these systems would offer transparency into officer conduct, drive accountability and protect both officers and civilians.

By September 2015, the Department of Justice had disbursed $23.2 million in grants to 73 local agencies across 32 states. By 2016, 47% of the 15,328 general-purpose law enforcement agencies in the US had acquired police body cameras. About 80% of those departments cited improving officer safety, reducing civilian complaints and decreasing agency liability as their primary motivators for incorporating the technology.

Early challenges for police body cameras

Despite the appetite for increased transparency, both police and activists also had concerns about the adoption of BWCs. Some law enforcement feared civilians wouldn’t interact with police if they knew they were being recorded, which would undermine community relations. Others wondered how witness identities would be protected if footage were to be made public. Activists, meanwhile, raised concerns about who would have discretion over police body camera activations and about potential privacy issues posed by the recordings.

There were also practical challenges. The first and most pressing stumbling block, especially for smaller departments, was the cost associated with the cameras. Not only was the hardware itself expensive, but costs for maintenance and physical video evidence storage quickly added up. Among agencies that hadn’t adopted police body cameras by 2016, the leading prohibitive factors were video storage and disposal costs (for 77% of the agencies), hardware costs (74%) and ongoing maintenance and support costs (73%). Even those departments that could afford the tech ran into trouble. First-generation cameras had to be docked at the end of a shift to offload video, which could take hours. That delayed the report-writing process for officers who wanted to review the video to provide the most accurate report possible. That was assuming there was any video to review – early cameras frequently fell off officers, especially during altercations with suspects.

How have police body cameras evolved?

As body camera pilot programs started to bring in data in 2015 and 2016, the first wave of related legislation arrived alongside it. States, cities, and counties set policies around which officers wore and used cameras, when they should record, and how departments should regulate public access to footage. To this day, no single standard exists across all jurisdictions, and the balance between keeping police data for evidence and allowing public access for accountability remains in flux. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security released its own policy in May 2023, demonstrating how much has yet to be settled.

Technology, on the other hand, has progressed enormously. Police body cameras are now more secure, streamlined, effective, and affordable than ever, thanks to advances in cloud storage, battery life, and uniform attachment strategies. The Axon Body 4, for example, records an expansive 160-degree view with a 5MP camera sensor and can upload its encrypted video files to the cloud in real time. That keeps administrative overhead low and saves officers time. The Body 4 also includes bi-directional communication between the wearer and dispatch for support in the moment and live capabilities through Axon Respond like maps, alerts, and streaming for greater visibility and safety. Click here to learn more about the Axon Body 4.

What benefits do police body cameras provide?

There is no conclusive data on the effect of police body cameras on police use of force, officer proactivity, citizen behavior, or police accountability.

However, the most comprehensive review of BWC research to date, published in 2020 with data from 70 previous studies, found that police body cameras led to two crucial improvements. For one, officers who use cameras tend to have fewer complaints filed against them. The reason for that is unclear – it could be that cameras improve officer conduct, or that video evidence makes citizens less likely to file spurious complaints, or for another reason else entirely – but the effect is clear and measurable. Second, body camera use increases the rate of guilty pleas, convictions, and case clearances. 

AI and the future of police body cameras

As police body cameras have become more commonplace, innovators have begun to experiment with how AI could supplement existing technology. A popular area of exploration lies in facial scanning and recognition: AI sifts through footage from body cameras to find faces, record their characteristics and compare them against a database of faces to identify people of interest. The technology is highly controversial, raising privacy concerns and frequently generating false-positive identifications in studies, particularly when trying to identify black and Asian men. Many companies who design facial recognition software discourage or outright bar its use in police contexts.

However, there are promising opportunities for AI use to supplement the benefits of body cameras when used purposefully and ethically. AI’s ability to automatically transcribe speech from body camera video empowers law enforcement to more easily interview suspects and witnesses at the scene of the incident, which is particularly relevant in cases of domestic violence. Rather than asking victims to come to the station the next day for an interview – providing ample time for abusers to intimidate them – officers can take in critical info on the spot with greater confidence. In Queensland, Australia, that's helped lead to an increase in charges filed, arrests, and convictions for domestic violence cases.

Police body cameras have come a long way since their introduction in Devon and Cornwall. They are now more effective, durable, and sophisticated than ever before, and stand to become only more so as their popularity continues to grow. At the same time, they present ethical challenges that leaders in the space must contend with. Police body camera manufacturers share the responsibility to ensure agencies receive high-quality devices to help them boost transparency and protect life.

How Axon can help

From ethical deployment to cutting-edge design, Axon takes initiative with body camera technology. After a careful review of the ethics and technology, Axon decided against incorporating facial recognition software into the Axon Body 4. That hardly prevents the device from leading the field with a robust feature suite. The Axon Body 4 incorporates Axon Auto-Transcribe to accelerate policework with AI. For the Rowlett Police Department, that’s meant an estimated 65-75% time savings. If you’re curious to learn more about how Axon can benefit your agency, get in touch today.