Police Body-Worn Cameras
University of North Carolina School of Law (2018)
Since the summer of 2014, community members, politicians, and police executives across the country have called for greater police accountability and improvements in police-community relations. Body-worn cameras (“BWCs”) are widely seen as serving both ends. Today, thousands of police agencies are exploring, adopting, and implementing body-cam programs. BWCs are here, and more are coming. Legal scholars have largely responded to this burgeoning new technology by addressing it through the framework of traditional discussions about privacy, police accountability, or the rules of evidence. Relatively few articles have gone further by identifying the potential benefits of BWCs and critically examining whether the adoption of this technology by police agencies can truly do what many proponents claim. This Article falls solidly into the latter camp.
Body-worn cameras are a tool. Tools should be used to advance normatively desirable goals when they are an efficient way of accomplishing or facilitating those goals. Body-worn cameras, like any tool, should not be used when the goal itself is inappropriate or when the tool is ill-suited for the job at hand.
This Article explores the limits of BWCs as a tool. It does so by first reviewing the historical justifications for, implementation of, and lessons learned from an earlier iteration of police video recording technology: in-car cameras. It then offers a simplified way of conceptualizing the multitudinous advantages that BWC proponents have identified, putting them into three categories: symbolic benefits, behavioral benefits, and informational benefits. This classification is a necessary first step in police agencies and communities articulating what they hope to achieve with a BWC program. Whether body cams will advance the desired goals depends on the practical limitations of the technology and our ability to interpret the resulting video footage as well as the policies and procedures that govern implementation. The latter half of the paper is dedicated to a critical examination of the practical limitations and policy considerations that will ultimately determine whether body-worn cameras can live up to the hype.
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