Addressing Racial Disparities in Police Actions: The Promise of Body-Worn Cameras and Police Accountability

Dr. Scott H. Decker, Foundation Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University & BWC TTA Subject Matter Expert. 

Concerns about racial disparity in police actions have prompted a large number of responses from governmental, advocacy, and police groups. Various reports have documented such disparities in the patterns of traffic stops, stop and frisk searches, arrests, officer-involved shootings, and deaths in custody. Efforts to understand and respond to the apparent disparities in how minority citizens are treated by the police have taken many forms. Motivated in part by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing report, body-worn cameras (BWCs) have assumed a primary role in efforts to build bridges between the police and the community. Funding made available by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) in 2015 to 73 law enforcement agencies (with additional funds made available in 2016) to support the purchase and implementation of body-worn cameras has hastened the spread of this technology. The use of BWCs has been supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance BWC Toolkit, developed by Dr. Charles M. Katz and Dr. Michael D. White, as well as a larger set of resources available at the BJA website. In addition, there is a weekly BWC newsletter that is part of a broader Training and Technical Assistance effort on the part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

An explicit focus on the growing use of BWC by law enforcement is to increase transparency and thereby enhance police accountability to the public. One salient aspect of such an approach is the desire to reduce disparities in the treatment of citizens by the police. Implicit in this approach is the idea that most police–citizen encounters do not reflect bias.

            American law enforcement has long been at the forefront of the public sector’s use of new technologies: the police turnkey box at the end of the nineteenth century, police call boxes, radio cars, computer-aided dispatch and sophisticated records management systems, mobile laptops or cell phones—police have been adopting and adapting to technology since the “watch and ward” system of medieval times. Current technologies available to law enforcement include drones, facial recognition systems, license plate scanners, and many more. But the one technology that has received the most attention as a response to community distrust and increased calls for accountability is the body-worn camera.

            As with any new technology, there are many unknowns about BWCs. Since the technology is relatively new to American law enforcement (though it enjoys a somewhat longer history and research tradition in the United Kingdom) little is known about the effects of BWC—in particular: 1. The impact on officer behavior. Do officers with cameras behave differently toward citizens, suspects, and victims, knowing that their interactions are being recorded? The evidence here is spotty at best and hardly sufficient to draw accurate conclusions. 2. The impact on the collection and preservation of evidence. With cameras surveilling the crime scene—often shortly after an offense has been committed—will cameras be useful in identifying additional pieces of evidence, witnesses, or victims? Will camera footage be useful in moving to preserve some forms of evidence more quickly? 3. Perhaps the key issue and one for which the research evidence is weakest, How does the public respond to the presence of BWCs? While citizens may respond favorably to videotaped evidence, those who mistrust the police may not believe that the footage is accurate, that it hasn’t been altered, or that it usually isn’t released in a timely manner. Those who mistrust the police may find that upon viewing a large volume of videotape that it is often inconclusive and is not the “magic bullet” in providing a definitive answer to officer, suspect, or citizen behavior. Indeed, one of the crucial dilemmas law enforcement now faces is how much video to release, in what format, and how quickly. Often, such decisions are guided by privacy or liability issues. Releasing videotapes of minors or victims of sexual assault, for example, may be inappropriate, and may reflect the conflicting demands placed upon law enforcement. The demands of an investigation may call for holding on to video evidence for long periods of time, raising issues regarding the chain of custody of such evidence. Indeed, as has been seen with DNA evidence, many juries may look for “definitive proof” in videotaped evidence, and if such “proof” is not found, they may choose not to convict. Understanding the effect of the presence of BWC on the public’s trust in the police is a key issue to the implementation of this technology.

Of course, there are many sources of videotaped evidence of police–citizen interactions. One is closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras in stores and public places. Websites such as CopWatch, CopBlock, and PhotographyIsNotACrime post thousands of videotaped interactions between police and citizens daily. When two sources show different angles or panoramas of such interactions, public mistrust may increase because of the differences in angle or timing. Historically, we know that the use of new technology is often subverted: police key boxes were “turned” by confederates, crime reports were suppressed, and databases on specific crime patterns were not maintained appropriately. Instilling confidence that BWC technology is being used honestly is an important step in its legitimacy.

That said, the theory behind BWCs is sound: When individuals know they are being monitored, they change their behavior—they become more accountable. That is why teachers proctor exams, managers supervise workers, and so on. But accountability is also enhanced by cultural change. Still, there is no conclusive evidence at this time that BWCs alone change culture. For that to happen, police training—at the police academy, by field-training officers (FTOs), and in-service—needs to change, as does the reward system in law enforcement. Academy success, FTO rankings, promotional scores, and the like must be linked to building successful community relations. Indeed, good community relations are a hallmark of “21st-Century Policing” and enhance officer performance and safety. In the 1990s, the National Institute of Justice and the Office of Community Oriented Policing led a series of meetings to develop an approach toward “Measuring What Matters,” a corollary of which was, “what matters is what is measured.”  The successful use of BWCs will depend on integrating them into police culture and the police reward structure. We must measure their use and their effects carefully, and be prepared to make refinements as needed. One step in doing so would be to integrate the public more effectively in discussions about what they want in policing. This should be a particular point of emphasis with groups that feel alienated or mistreated by law enforcement.

To date, there is no evidence that on their own BWCs enhance police–community relations or change police culture. We need to know more about the impact of BWC technology through citizen surveys and follow-ups at traffic stops, crime scenes, and other settings where BWC-equipped officers are present. We also need to understand the potential negative consequences of such technology for the police and the community. BWCs have been touted as a tool to monitor police behavior, provide better forensic evidence, restore faith in the police, discipline police, and change policing behavior. They may do all of these things. Or none of them. Hence, it is incumbent on police departments to carefully assess their experiences with BWCs, report them to others, and be prepared to integrate the next technological advance appropriately. To be sure, citizens should be an important part of this assessment, as the stronger the police–community partnership, the more effective policing will be. 


Dr. Scott Decker is a Foundation Professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. He is also a subject matter expert on the BWC TTA Team. Along with BWCs, his areas of expertise also include: Juvenile justice and delinquency prevention; Gang research; and Program evaluation.

Topic Tags: