Implementing BWCs in Collegiate Law Enforcement Agencies

Janne E. Gaub, Ph.D., BWC TTA Subject Expert

Body-worn cameras (BWCs) have spread rapidly to municipal and collegiate police agencies across the country. The research and guidance on BWCs, however, has focused primarily on their implementation in municipal agencies. To date, only one study assesses their use in a collegiate setting.[1] Though collegiate agencies are similar to municipal agencies in many ways, there are important differences between a college campus setting and a traditional town, city, or county. Campus police also have a unique set of stakeholders (university administrators, faculty and staff, students, student organizations, parents, alumni, and donors) with different expectations, especially about public safety. Whereas the majority of front-line officers in a municipal setting conduct traditional patrol functions, campus policing in many ways mimics a specialized community policing assignment.[2][3] These differences can affect a collegiate agency’s decision to implement BWCs, including whether it would choose to have a program (or not), the challenges it faces in doing so, and its decisions about various policy issues.

To better understand the use of BWCs in the collegiate setting, the researcher developed and administered a survey for police agencies serving private and public four-year colleges and universities with student populations of 5,000 or more. The survey asked about program goals, policy development, and the challenges and benefits of BWCs. Respondents received survey requests by email to 611 agencies; 126 agencies responded (20.6 percent response rate). Respondents represented colleges and universities in 39 states, had between 2 and 800 sworn personnel, and campus populations ranging from 5,200 to 60,000 people. The full report and findings can be found here.

Agency Demographics

Nearly half of the agencies (49 percent) had fully implemented BWCs and another 13 percent were in the planning phase or had partially implemented their program; 21 agencies indicated they did not have—and had no intention of implementing—BWCs. Nearly three-quarters indicated their local municipal agencies had or were in the process of obtaining a BWC program (including two-thirds of collegiate agencies without BWCs). Though all respondents were collegiate agencies, they outfitted a range of specialized units with BWCs: canine, SWAT, investigators/detectives, bike, training, traffic, and community policing.

Many agencies were adamant that all agencies should have BWCs, including collegiate agencies. One respondent noted, “This equipment should be considered as basic as buying a gun for an officer.” Others, however, were more measured in their endorsement: “Although the challenges are numerous and legitimate, BWCs are a valuable asset for departments.”

Program Goals and Policy Development

When collegiate agencies considered BWCs, by far the most common goal for such a program was enhanced transparency and legitimacy, though administrative benefits also rated highly (e.g., officer oversight, training, and evidence collection). One respondent said, “Planning and research are key to a successful program. It is important to get buy-in and team support. Once in place, the program sells itself by producing evidence to support cases and officers.”

When developing policy, collegiate agencies with BWCs consulted with a range of stakeholders[4]:

  • Line officers (63 percent)
  • Nearby agencies (51-56 percent)
  • Model policies (e.g., PERF, IACP; 50–60 percent)
  • Municipal or county prosecutors (28–36 percent)
  • Federal resources (e.g., BJA Toolkit); 19–25 percent)
  • State criminal justice partners (i.e., State Bureau of Investigation; 12–19 percent)
  • Privacy (e.g., ACLU) or special interest groups (e.g., NAACP), defense attorneys (RARE)

Many also noted that administrative units within the college/university, such as the University General Counsel or IT services, were also included in policy development, though no respondents mentioned including students or student groups. Importantly, several respondents noted that cross-jurisdictional agreements (i.e., obtaining police powers from a local municipality) can affect the BWC program in numerous ways.

Benefits of BWCs

Respondents in this survey—like those in surveys among municipal agencies—overwhelmingly noted that the primary benefits of BWCs are evidence collection and resolution of complaints. Evidence collection is important for collegiate agencies because evidence collected via BWC footage can be used in both civil and criminal proceedings, as well as a student conduct hearing (e.g., an assault on campus that is both a criminal action and a violation of the student code of conduct). These proceedings are handled by two different processes: the agency can share footage from the BWC with both the court and the university conduct board to provide a better picture of what happened during the encounter. Most agencies did not see a reduction in complaints (unsurprising, as they are a relatively low-frequency event) but they were able to resolve them more quickly and often informally.

Challenges of BWCs

Municipal and collegiate agencies report many challenges—such as officer buy-in. But some challenges pose unique quandaries for collegiate agencies.

Budgetary and Technical Concerns

Cost is generally the primary hindrance to implementing BWCs.[5] But for collegiate agencies, the process can be more complex than for municipalities. Any agency—municipal and collegiate alike—wishing to implement BWCs that is unable to do so with existing funds must request a budget allocation from its governing body (e.g., city council, university administration). For public universities, especially, funding streams come from a variety of sources and can have varying rules for their use. One respondent explained: “The best choice was determined to be [manufacturer redacted], but they were not on the state contract. That required us to request a sole-source deviance from both the university and the state.” Additionally, municipal agencies can typically gain support from governing bodies and the public for BWC programs; conversely, respondents noted it is often difficult to persuade university administrators that funds should be spent on “extras” like BWCs (especially in places facing sometimes substantial budget reductions from state legislatures).

Technical concerns—like not having dedicated IT services for the police department—were also commonly cited challenges. Combined with budgetary constraints and workload burdens for daily maintenance of the technology, the administration of a BWC program can be overwhelming for small agencies. Many respondents recommended combining resources where possible; for example, several noted using the same vendor for both in-car and BWC systems to reduce redundancy. Others mentioned using systems that integrate computer-aided dispatch (CAD) and records management systems (RMS) that store and bundle all digital evidence to reduce the workload after footage is captured and uploaded.

Privacy and Public Records Compliance

Compliance with public records laws can be daunting for any agency, but for some collegiate agencies, these laws pose unique challenges. One respondent from Pennsylvania explained their conundrum:

The Pennsylvania legislature and governor signed legislation which allows jurisdictions the use of BWC with immunity from the [state] wiretap act and failed to include the sworn officers with the 14 [public] universities. This creates a significant concern that the recording of students or community members in residence halls and other areas could result in officers being exposed to criminal culpability of violating the wiretap act. The state university police chiefs have asked for the new law to be amended to include [public] university sworn law enforcement officers.

In terms of privacy, some agencies were concerned that BWCs could present challenges related to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and those with medical schools and hospitals expressed concern about violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In a more general sense, college and university students, staff, and faculty tend to take personal privacy very seriously. Differing expectations regarding what is private can result in confusion or conflict. In many municipal agencies, the BWC can record anywhere the officer is legally permitted to be, including private areas such as residences; on college campuses, however, the concept of “privacy” can be more ambiguous (e.g., dorm rooms).

Agencies Without BWCs

Nearly one-fifth (18 percent) of respondents indicated they had considered BWCs but ultimately chose not to adopt them; five respondents had not even considered them (and had no intention of doing so). The most common reasons for not implementing BWCs were the short-term costs associated with upfront capital (57 percent) and long-term costs associated with technology upkeep and data storage (67 percent). Almost 40 percent of respondents indicated that compliance with public records requirements would pose a problem and dissuaded them from adopting cameras. Nearly 25 percent of respondents noted that technical concerns, community buy-in, and competition for other technology factored into their decision not to use BWCs, and nearly 20 percent felt competition from other non-technology needs.

Conclusion

Just as prior research shows similarities between campus and municipal police, the results from this survey show similar attitudes about the benefits and challenges of BWCs. There are also direct comparisons between this survey and the 2016 LEMAS BWC Supplement. According to the 2016 LEMAS, 47 percent of general service agencies had acquired BWCs in some capacity; among collegiate agencies, 62 percent of agencies had fully or partially deployed programs or were in the planning phase. Additionally, both surveys found that agencies implement BWCs for similar reasons—primarily for evidentiary value and to aid in complaint resolution. In both surveys, cost is the inhibiting factor among agencies that do not implement BWCs. Similarly, cost, technical difficulties, and privacy concerns, are the primary challenges agencies face, and cost was the primary inhibiting factor among non-adopting agencies to decide not to implement a BWC program.


[1] Pelfrey, W. V., & Keener, S. 2016. “Police body worn cameras: A mixed method approach assessing perceptions of efficacy.” International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 39(3), 491–506.

[2] Peak, K. J., Barthe, E. P., & Garcia, A. 2008. “Campus policing in America: A twenty-year perspective.” Police Quarterly, 11(2), 239–260.

[3] Sloan, J. J., Lanier, M. M., & Beer, D. L. 2000. “Policing the contemporary university campus: Challenging traditional organizational models.” Journal of Security Administration, 23(1), 1–20.

[4] Half of agencies had full implementation but 80 percent had some form of BWC program. Percentages here are given as ranges to demonstrate the level of agreement across agencies regardless of implementation status. More information on this is provided in the full report, including tables.

[5] Hyland, S. S. (2018). Body-worn cameras in law enforcement agencies, 2016. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.


Janne E. Gaub is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at East Carolina University. She earned her Ph.D. in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Arizona State University in 2015. She serves as a subject expert for the Bureau of Justice Assistance BWC Policy and Implementation Program. Her research focuses on contemporary issues in policing, including misconduct, technology, use of force, and the intersection of gender and policing and has been published in outlets such as Criminology & Public Policy, Police Quarterly, and Policing: An International Journal.


This project was supported by Grant No. 2015-DE-BX-K002 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justiceand Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.