Review of Michael D. White and Aili Malm, Cops, Cameras, and Crisis: The Potential and the Perils of Policy Body-Worn Cameras
Theoretical Criminology (2020)
Police body-worn cameras (BWCs) have proliferated rapidly throughout the U.S. since 2014, when several controversial police killings of Black citizens sparked demand for police reform. BWCs featured prominently among the recommendations made by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and have since been touted as a tool that can increase police transparency, accountability, and legitimacy; improve police-citizen interactions; and aid in criminal investigations. With such potential, it is no wonder that BWCs have received support from “a diverse range of sectors that are often at odds with each other,” (White & Malm, 2020: 7) including police leadership organizations, civil rights groups, police unions, and citizens.
Fast forward to 2020. Billions of dollars have been invested in BWCs. The Department of Justice has made training, technical assistance, and other resources available to agencies seeking to adopt BWCs. Thousands of police agencies now equip their officers with BWCs, and all signs point to continued diffusion of the technology in the years ahead. Dozens of scientific studies – including many experiments and quasi-experiments – have evaluated the effects of BWCs on policing. So, the pressing question is: have BWCs realized their potential? The answer: it’s complicated.
In Cops, Cameras, and Crisis, Michael White and Aili Malm get down to brass tacks. Following a brief overview of the lineage of BWCs in policing, they boil upwards of fifty studies (completed in the US and abroad) down to five easy-to-digest tables. Five studies assessed the effect of BWCs on citizens’ perceptions of procedural justice, with three indicating they cause significant improvements. Twenty-five studies tested whether BWCs reduce complaints against officers, with nine showing significant reductions. Nineteen studies considered whether BWCs 2 reduce use of force incidents, with seven revealing significant reductions. Seven studies explored the evidentiary benefits of BWCs on crime detection, arrests, and case outcomes. Just one suggested a significant benefit: in Essex, domestic violence investigations with BWC footage were more likely to result in criminal charges being filed. Finally, 12 studies measured the effect of BWCs on officer activity (i.e., stops, citations, arrests, and/or proactivity). Five showed a significant decline in arrests, whereas one showed a significant increase. Two revealed a significant increase in proactivity. One found a significant increase in citations, and another found a significant decline in “arrests + citations” (p. 73).
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