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A Mixed Record On Effectiveness of Police Body Cameras

The escalation of police violence broadly has led some activists to lose faith in body cameras as a meaningful tool, particularly as deeper issues that afflict policing remain unaddressed. Policies governing their use and access to footage also vary greatly, as does enforcement of those rules. So far, the best evidence suggests they have led to less use of force and provided more tools for holding rogue cops accountable, according to Vox. Part of the confusion over the efficacy of body-worn cameras has stemmed from a wide range of police department policies, which can give officers wide discretion in when their cameras are actually capturing footage. There have also been countless reports of officers simply violating their department’s body camera policies, like turning off their cameras in situations when they should clearly be recording. Legitimate risks remain around surveillance, and transparency regarding where the body camera footage is stored and how it might be shared with third parties. Other scandals include officers “acting and directing” with their body cameras. In 2017, the public learned Baltimore cops had manipulated their cameras to plant fake evidence against a man to arrest him. In Florida in 2014, police released body camera footage that seemed to corroborate their account, yet a surveillance camera from a nearby building showed video evidence that contradicted the police and their doctored footage.

In 2020, an influential meta-analysis that reviewed the major existing studies came to a careful conclusion that while body cameras can reduce citizen complaints, it’s not clear if that’s because police were behaving better or if citizens simply reported fewer concerns, perhaps because they assumed body camera footage would be sufficient for accountability. Whether a camera program is effective at achieving its goals and viewed by the public as a credible tool, researchers are learning, can often depend on whether the technology is required to be turned on, whether individual officers can review the footage before giving their statements, and whether people involved in an incident or the public can watch the videos in a timely manner. Over the past decade, accessing recorded footage has sometimes been very difficult for individuals. In 2019, a civilian review watchdog said that the New York Police Department failed to provide body camera footage for police misconduct investigations in 40 percent of its requests. Police departments have historically fought to keep damning footage private, and in cases where they have released videos, it’s often begrudgingly after months or years of legal wrangling. More elected officials now say police chiefs are recognizing that this kind of secrecy will only undermine their agency’s credibility and effectiveness.


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