- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Police body cameras are not providing the type of irrefutable evidence that law enforcement and civil rights advocates had expected, according to the most comprehensive study of the technology to date.

“Although officers and citizens are generally supportive of [body camera] use, [they] have not had statistically significant or consistent effects on most measures of officer and citizen behavior or citizens’ views of police,” says a recent report from the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Key findings show that body-worn cameras tend to reduce complaints against police. But researchers said it is unclear whether that is because improved officer conduct has led to fewer complaints or because citizens who know they are being recorded are less likely to file complaints.

The research also found that it was hard to determine whether cameras improved citizen satisfaction with individual police encounters despite the technology’s promise of improving accountability among police and the public.

The research is based on 70 empirical studies from around the world that explored the impact of body-worn cameras on police behavior, perceptions and investigations, and citizen and community behavior and perceptions.

Cynthia Lum, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy and the report’s co-author, noted that police body cameras have proliferated in recent years. In 2013, the Department of Justice surveyed 500 police departments and found that less than 25% used the devices.

But rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager and in Baltimore in 2014 after a young black man died in police custody brought calls for the technology to be adopted widely.

The Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit membership group, found last year that more than one-third of all U.S. law enforcement agencies had some or all officers wearing body cameras, and 50% of agencies said they had plans to do so. Recent federal studies have shown that roughly half of the country’s general-purpose law enforcement agencies have acquired the technology.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states have enacted laws that require at least some officers to use body-worn cameras. Additionally, 13 states and the District of Columbia have approved funding for state and local police forces to buy equipment, hire support staff, and operate or purchase data systems for the cameras.

Body cameras are manufactured by about a dozen companies and range in cost from about $150 to $1,000 per unit. Price estimates of an overall system installation at an agency’s headquarters — which could include startup costs, storage expenses, equipment upgrades and hiring staff to manage the digital workflow of video recordings — vary widely.

The massive amount of digital video that accumulates rapidly and storage costs reportedly have caused several programs across the country to delay the implementation of cameras.

The George Mason researchers also noted that body cameras have not led to police initiation of fewer activities — a phenomenon sometimes called the “Ferguson effect,” in which officers retreat from some duties and allow crime rates to escalate.

Data on police use of force was mixed. Six of the reviewed studies found that police with body-worn cameras were less likely to use force and eight other studies found no statistically significant impact.

One study found that police who are required to wear and turn on their cameras used force less frequently than officers who were allowed to turn their devices on or off.

Another study concluded that body-worn cameras increased levels of stress and burnout for police and suggested that more organizational support is needed.

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