In View Commentary: Establishing Officer BWC Buy-In

Establishing Officer BWC Buy-In

Thomas Woodmansee, Senior Advisor at CNA, BWC subject expert, and former police officer and Dr. Renee Mitchell, Sergeant and BWC subject expert, Sacramento, California, Police Department

As the implementation of body-worn cameras (BWCs) continues in police agencies across the country, there appears to be an increase in acceptance of—and, in many cases, demand for—the technology by officers. Police recognize that BWC technology is here to stay and a majority of communities expect their police departments to adopt them. Still, officers and agencies do not uniformly embrace BWCs. Some officers do not readily “buy-in” to the need for and benefits of BWCs. This In View provides the perspectives of two BWC subject experts who come from different backgrounds—one a former police supervisor and one a current police sergeant.

Our Perspectives 

Many police officers feel that the recent climate and attitudes towards the police have changed because of highly publicized, controversial use of force incidents around the country. Police officers currently carry (and must be proficient with), far more equipment than they did just 20 years ago. BWCs represent another tool that a growing number of officers are now required to carry—one that some officers prefer not to have. Some officers feel that the current push for BWCs stems not necessarily from a goal of helping them to do their jobs better but a means to surveil how they do their jobs. It is important to understand how some officers may view BWCs only as a mechanism for supervisors (and others) to scrutinize their actions and look for bad behavior or policy violations (that would go undetected when not wearing a BWC). While these concerns are real, BWCs provide many benefits. BWCs are quite possibly one of the most beneficial tools that officers can have. Departments should recognize that while officers typically view a new piece of equipment (such as an electronic stun device) as helping them with their tactics and safety, some officers could have a different perspective when required to wear a BWC. One can argue that if BWCs had been introduced to policing at a time when societal support and understanding were more positive, all officers would have more readily embraced them. 

Whether you are a chief, a supervisor, or an officer, if you examine all the potential benefits associated with BWCs, it becomes difficult to understand why officers would not want to wear them. Some benefits include the following:

  • Officer safety
    • The presence and recognition of a BWC can influence and moderate civilian and suspect behavior.
  • Improvements and enhancements to training and teaching (internally and externally)
    • Use of force – Provides an additional opportunity to examine how force was used and if it was effective. BWCs also provide the ability to examine and discuss if other options may have been applicable.
    • Tactics – Ability to review and promote best practices with tactics for specific situations.
    • Communication – Ability to utilize footage to demonstrate effective communication approaches. Also, promotes how officer communication can de-escalate situations and provides a perspective on the officer’s demeanor and verbal skills.
  • Evidentiary value and benefits
    • Mechanism to support officer’s probable cause, and enhance prosecution charging decisions and the ability to show juries what occurred.
  • Transparency – The opportunity to proactively demonstrate good police work that media may not recognize.
    • Footage can show the vast complexities of the job and illustrate the nuances of everyday decision-making.
    • Footage can show how officers use discretion under varying, often complex, scenarios.
    • Multiple BWCs at a scene can show footage from different angles to demonstrate alternative viewpoints.
  • Positive impact on complaints
    •  There are many examples in which citizens made complaints against officers and the BWC footage supported the officers’ actions. Typically, the complaint ends immediately without a prolonged, stressful internal investigation.
  • Accountability
    • BWCs provide a mechanism to not only promote good police work but to identify those who need retraining or who should be disciplined (or fired).
    • Random audits can improve police-community relationships by demonstrating the willingness to hold officers accountable.

It is unfair to paint all police with the same brush when a very small percentage of officers engage in inappropriate conduct. However, this is the world police officers live in, and we hope that officers will accept BWCs as a mechanism for demonstrating the good work that they do every day. We believe that BWC implementation will bring with it strong emotional reactions from officers. BWCs are a means to demonstrate the vast decision-making responsibilities and discretion that officers exercise and provide the ability to challenge potential misconceptions relating to abuse of power allegations.

A supervisor’s role is to help officers succeed and improve. Chiefs, command staff, and supervisors should not just communicate and engage with their officers on why the department is choosing to establish a BWC program; they should provide officers and their unions the opportunity to contribute to the implementation and policy development. Departments and officers can collaborate on issues such as officer privacy concerns and supervisor review of footage, following the example of the Greensboro, North Carolina, Police Department and many other departments. When possible, supervisors should explain research on BWCs to officers so they understand the empirical outcomes of implementing a BWC program. Supervisors should communicate all the potential benefits and limitations of BWCs to the officers, and work to empower them to own and support the program. The development of this shared responsibility should be an ongoing process. Supervisors need supervision as well, and BWC policy needs to be clear on when and how supervisors will review the footage. Arbitrary retroactive review of BWC cannot be allowed once BWC footage has been reviewed through the proper channels.  For example, organizations should think about “double jeopardy” policies for BWC footage: once one member of the chain of command reviews BWC footage and deems it an appropriate use of force or appropriate use of courtesy, another member of the chain of command cannot review the footage and come to a different disciplinary outcome. These types of missteps in policy application reduce officer buy-in and weaken trust. Officers should be confident that once their BWC footage has been reviewed by their chain of command and internal affairs, a change in rank structure six months later will not reverse the previous decision. Leaders must apply fairness, common sense, and reasonableness when using BWC footage to train or discipline officers.

Finally, agencies should be cautious about devoting too much attention to officer “buy-in.” We have all heard the colloquialism that officers only hate two things, “change and the way things are.” It is human nature to resist change. Being forced to acquire a new skill is difficult. Buying in may come hard for some and it may not occur until the technology benefits the individual in a tangible way, such as having a complaint dismissed or the video being pivotal evidence in a court case. Until then, supervisors should ensure compliance with BWC policy through regular oversight, informally at first but more formally if noncompliance persists. An authoritarian approach will not help with buy-in, but following up on calls, checking to ensure officers turned on BWCs when they were required to, or complimenting officers on a job well done will go a long way to reinforce the use of BWCs during their daily routines. This is the key point—once a technology has been adopted into an officer’s daily routine, buy-in becomes a moot point; officers no longer think about the technology’s effect on their job, because it is just a part of their daily routine. Change is difficult and individual buy-in assists with organizational change. Officers in Chicago, Illinois protested new uniforms, equating them to milk delivery uniforms. Now officers take pride in their uniforms, wearing full regalia to promotional ceremonies. However, line officer buy-in is not always the only answer: good supervision and leadership go a long way, too.


Tom Woodmansee is a Senior Advisor at CNA, working on BWC Training and Technical Assistance. Prior to joining CNA, he worked for the Madison, Wisconsin, Police Department for 25 years. Mr. Woodmansee has worked as a Patrol Officer, Undercover Narcotics Officer, and 13 years as a Detective. He also served on the SWAT team as a tactical operator, later as a Negotiator and then a Commander overseeing the Police Academy and several specialized investigative units. Mr. Woodmansee has worked with many agencies around the country on a variety of projects and systems improvements through the BJA Strategies for Policing Innovation initiative and the National Public Safety Partnership.

Renée J. Mitchell has served in the Sacramento Police Department for 20 years and is currently a police sergeant. She holds a BS in psychology, an MA in counseling psychology, an MBA, a JD, and a PhD in criminology from the University of Cambridge. She was a 2009/2010 Fulbright Police Research Fellow and completed research in the area of juvenile gang violence at the London Metropolitan Police Service. You can view her TEDx talks, “Research not Protests” and “Policing Needs to Change: Trust me I’m a Cop”, where she advocates for evidence-based policing. She is the founder of the American Society of Evidence-Based Policing, a National Police Foundation Fellow, a BetaGov Fellow, a member of the George Mason Evidence-Based Policing Hall of Fame, and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. Her research areas include policing, evidence-based crime prevention, evaluation research and methods, place-based criminology, police/citizen communication and procedural justice. She has published her work in the Journal of Experimental Criminology, Justice Quarterly, and the Cambridge Journal of Evidence-Based Policing. She has an edited book with Dr. Laura Huey, Evidence Based Policing: An Introduction.

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.