Will body cameras help end police violence? 

Monday, June 7, 2021
In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black lives at the hands of police, impacted families and community groups, police reform advocates, legislators, and even police departments have been calling for law enforcement agencies to adopt and expand body camera programs.
This call is not new. Body cameras were proposed as a police accountability tool after the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014. They were called for after the police killing of Philando Castile in 2017, and they are being called for again today as police continue to brutalize Black lives and use excessive force on protesters advocating for racial justice.
Those who call for body cameras view the technology as a tool to better monitor officer conduct. Some advocates hope that the cameras will reduce misconduct and increase police accountability. In some cases, body camera footage has shed light on police misconduct that would not have been witnessed otherwise. However, it is important to note that even when body camera footage has clearly demonstrated officer misconduct, often such footage has not helped hold police accountable.
Against the backdrop of some voices advocating for more body cameras, still other voices are calling for the divestment of resources away from police and reinvestment into communities. They urge us to consider whether it makes sense to increase police budgets to spend millions of dollars building and maintaining body camera programs that expand police surveillance powers and pose known civil liberties concerns.
While it is clear that video footage, including body camera footage, has played an important role in driving forward the conversation about police accountability, the evidence on whether body cameras are an effective tool for actually delivering police accountability is mixed at best. It is equally mixed on the question of whether body cameras prevent police misconduct and violence in the first place. A comprehensive review of 70 empirical studies of body-worn cameras found that body cameras have not had statistically significant or consistent effects in decreasing police use of force. While some studies suggest that body cameras may offer benefits, others show either no impact or even possible negative effects.
In 2017, researchers conducted one of the largest randomized control trials on body cameras that included over 2,000 police officers in Washington, DC, and found that body cameras had no statistically significant impact on officer use of force, civilian complaints, or arrests for disorderly conduct by officers. In other words, body cameras did not reduce police misconduct. A 2020 meta-analysis similarly found substantial uncertainty about whether body cameras can reduce officer use of force. A recent 2021 study did find that on average, body cameras reduced use of force by nearly 10%, but the study’s authors noted that their results may have been inflated by site-selection bias. The authors also acknowledged that body cameras are not a panacea to police violence.
While in a few high-profile cases, body camera footage has been used in trials that led to officer convictions, body camera footage is disproportionately used to prosecute civilians rather than officers. One 2016 study found that 92.6 percent of prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions with body cameras have used that footage as evidence to prosecute civilians, while just 8.3 percent have used it to prosecute police officers. Similarly, an investigatory report by Fusion found that body cameras are more likely to be used to clear officers of wrongdoing and lower litigation costs rather than hold officers accountable. The lack of clear evidence on the effectiveness of body cameras indicates that at a minimum, more research is needed.
The idea that body cameras may have little to no impact on policing — either in preventing police violence or holding police accountable after the fact — may sound counterintuitive, but perhaps it should not be so surprising. 
First, unlike bystander footage that helps communities watch the police, body cameras and the footage collected by them are recorded from the officers’ point of view and controlled by law enforcement. While in some cases, body camera footage has been critical in capturing police violence where there were no bystanders, it is important to note that body camera footage can be incomplete, and in many cases, is manipulated or edited to bolster police narratives of what occurred during an incident instead of depicting the full picture. Because officers have the power to control the cameras and the footage collected, body camera footage can distort reality while providing an illusion of accuracy. For example, in 2014, Florida deputies chased and beat a suspected drug dealer named Derrick Price. While body camera footage seemed to confirm what the officers wrote in their incident reports — that Mr. Price was resisting arrest — a surveillance camera from a nearby building completely contradicted these reports and showed that Mr. Price had clearly attempted to surrender voluntarily but was still brutally beaten.
Second, body cameras may serve more as a tool to monitor civilians and chill people’s rights than to hold officers accountable. Because body cameras can roam through both public and private spaces, they capture enormous amounts of data about people beyond those interacting with the police officer wearing the camera. Body cameras and the footage collected by them pose immense privacy risks to individuals and communities, especially because there is often no transparency or accountability around how the data collected are used, maintained, or shared with third parties, including companies and other law and immigration enforcement agencies.
The privacy risks posed by body cameras are amplified when police use them in conjunction with other powerful surveillance tools such as facial recognition and social media monitoring tools, which police are increasingly deploying to identify protesters. Alarmingly, companies have already developed body cameras that are integrated with facial recognition, a technology that has been proven to be inaccurate and racially biased. Just in the past year, the public learned of at least three Black men wrongfully arrested and jailed due to racially biased facial recognition technology. Not only can use of these surveillance tools chill people’s exercise of their First Amendment right to protest, their use can lead to unlawful arrests that violate people’s Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure.
Lastly, a long history of surveillance establishes a close connection between increasing surveillance infrastructure and exacerbating racial bias in policing. Surveillance tools have always disproportionately harmed the most marginalized communities in our society, whether or not those tools were designed to do so. From the use of IBM’s census-tabulating machine to track and incarcerate Japanese-Americans during World War II, to the use of automated license plate readers to surveil the Muslim community after 9/11, surveillance tools in the hands of police have always powered systemic racism and injustice. The racist roots of our policing system are inextricably linked to the surveillance tools that have and continue to fuel police violence and white supremacy.
If our goal is to end police violence, we should question whether body cams are a good investment since research shows they do not stop or even curb police brutality while posing known privacy and civil liberties concerns. Moreover, policing’s deep roots in white supremacy,should give us pause at the notion that body cams can limit or prevent police violence, particularly against people of color. If policing’s history in America makes policing inherently biased towards violence against communities of color, then we need less police and less policing to curb police violence—not more policing resources, including body cams.
Before spending millions of dollars on more body camera technology that will significantly increase already excessive police budgets, we should first examine whether that money is better spent on other services with a more meaningful impact on public safety.  When so many people — disproportionately people of color — are unhoused, lack health care, and struggle to receive adequate schooling, it is worth asking whether investing limited municipal resources in body cameras will address the root problems fueling police violence and white supremacy, or whether that money could be invested in more promising strategies to make our communities safer.