Future Tense

The Unfulfilled Potential of Police Body Cameras in the Era of Black Lives Matter

A close-up on a body camera attached to a police officer's shirt.
A Los Angeles Police Department officer wears a body camera on June 11, 2017, in Hollywood, California. Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

This article is part of the Policing and Technology Project, a collaboration between Future Tense and the Tech, Law, & Security Program at American University Washington College of Law that examines the relationship between law enforcement, police reform, and technology.

Public demand for racial justice and police accountability will remain a defining feature of 2020 long after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. In the aftermath of police violence resulting in the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Daniel Prude, and Rayshard Brooks, many took to the streets to protest police brutality and to demand changes. Currently, public officials across the United States are considering major reforms to address the entrenched institutional biases that have influenced policing policy and interactions with Black and Hispanic community members. Some proposals are sweeping—like dramatically curtailing the funding and fundamental purpose of police departments—while others are more incremental, like making data on complaints against officers publicly available, developing a national database to track police shootings, improving deescalation training, and passing laws to curb the use of pretextual traffic stops.

While these alternatives are being considered, it is important to take a moment to reflect on whether we should expect these proposals to work—and what “work” means here. When people propose a particular police reform, they often do not explain why they expect it to make a difference. When there is a sense of urgency, there is also a tendency to think that there are obvious solutions. But common-sense solutions can often turn out to be nonsense in the realm of public policy, leading people to search for the next idea to implement immediately. (Scared Straight and DARE are familiar examples of highly touted programs that failed to live up to expectations). Unfortunately, there is no vaccine for solving the complex problems of police violence and racial injustice. As evidence of that, we can look to the body-worn camera.

Police departments started adopting body cameras 10 years ago, and their use accelerated after the police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014. Nearly half of police departments in the U.S. (7,259 agencies) were using the devices in some capacity by June 2016, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. (That number has almost certainly gone up, but there is not more recent reliable data.) After the New Orleans Police Department transitioned to body cameras, Superintendent Michael Harrison noted in the Daily Signal, “Because we are truly transparent, we are given the benefit of the doubt many times. Citizens are feeling better about us, and officers are feeling better about their department.” Similarly, Travis Easter, media relations coordinator for the San Diego Police Department, asserted, “If officers and citizens are being watched, we are both more liable to do the right thing.” But these optimistic statements, made in 2016, feel tone-deaf now.

Body-worn cameras did not prevent Floyd, Prude, and Brooks from dying at the hands of police violence while being recorded by the officers at the scene. Indeed, it may even seem that things are getting worse since the implementation of body cameras.

Part of the problem lies in the assumptions people make about widespread adoption of body cameras: that they will create more transparency and accountability for officers on the job, which in turn will reduce abuses of authority and, eventually, will increase trust and confidence in the police. The unrealized potential of body cams should serve as a reminder as policymakers undertake police reform at this critical juncture in U.S. history.

This logic is flawed for three reasons. First, although the devices have created more transparency around how officers respond to calls and interact with community members, this has not generated greater accountability in many police jurisdictions. The technology itself does not produce accountability—rather, it comes from the departmental policies dictating how and when the devices are used in the field.

Research we conducted in 2012 in Mesa, Arizona, found that police turned on their cameras 70 percent of the time under a mandatory activation policy, but activations dropped to 50 percent under a discretionary policy. In another large department with 12,000 officers, we are finding that officers turn on their cameras at fewer than 25 percent of calls for service. (This research has not yet been published.) There is too much latitude for officers in some jurisdictions to not activate their cameras or turn them off, possibly in situations where they feel their actions may come under scrutiny. This problem may not be widespread, but according to a report by the National Institute of Justice, use of force occurs in 1 percent of police contacts and deadly force occurs in only a small fraction of this 1 percent. If police departments do not require officers to turn on their cameras, then many of these violent encounters will not be captured. (And of course, as our Mesa study suggests, police may refuse to turn on their cameras even when required.) One of the officers who conducted the raid on Breonna Taylor’s Kentucky apartment was wearing a body camera—why wasn’t it turned on in advance? Policies also regulate how video is stored, chain of custody, and access to the footage. For example, the video footage of Daniel Prude’s death was not released to his family’s attorney until nine weeks later, after a determination was already made about the officers’ culpability. In short, the use of body cameras is not leading to accountability because the departmental policies are insufficient. Until these policy gaps are addressed, body cameras are unlikely to make police officers more accountable.

The second reason body cameras may not have lived up to their early hype is that more transparency around police violence has created a distorted representation of people’s experiences in different parts of the country. Police violence is more visceral and upsetting when viewed through the lens of cameras worn by officers at the scene. As the video footage is played on repeat on news channels and social networking sites, police departments are not just seeing reputational damage—they are hemorrhaging public trust and confidence in some jurisdictions. People will typically draw from personal experience when forming opinions about the police, but in the absence of direct contact with the police officers, their judgments can depend on news coverage.

Ted Chiricos, a criminologist at Florida State University, conducted research on fear of crime that offers insights on how these individuals might fill in the gaps. Chiricos’ research finds that reading news stories about crime makes people more afraid of crime, as one might expect. Local news stories have the most significant impact on fear, followed by regional and national-level news stories. Without the local news, people will base their fears on what is happening at the national level. A person who has not come in direct contact with law enforcement may make assumptions about their local police based on what is happening in other communities, like Minneapolis and Portland.

This is not to say that police violence in the U.S. is overstated: The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that 1,200 arrest-related deaths occurred in the 12 months ending in May 2016 across 17,000 jurisdictions (and crowdsourced data from Mapping Police Violence has found 826 deaths in 2020). It is only to say that there is a natural tendency for people to fill in the gaps in their local knowledge of the police with what is happening on the national scale. The wide circulation of body camera footage accelerates this process. The media is saturated with videos of police engaging in violent and unlawful behavior, but good cops also engage in kind and compassionate behavior on a regular basis. Those contrasting images are not swamping our media outlets. Thus, the aggregate effect of this continual stream of negative video footage is to do harm to police legitimacy and public trust, despite the benefits of body cameras making police more transparent.

The final reason body cameras have not ushered in widespread changes is that police departments are implementing the technology with a tactical focus, rather than for strategic purposes. Tactical functions are aimed at collecting evidence for court, investigative support, social control, and protecting officers in the line of duty. These goals benefit officers, but not as much the communities that police are sworn to protect and serve. Police in several countries have noted that false complaints against officers have plummeted since their adoption of the technology. This is a positive outcome, but why have body cameras been used more effectively to keep citizens accountable?

Police body cameras in the era of Black Lives Matter are no panacea and it was naïve to think they would be. In his 1921 Nobel lecture, historian Christian Lange noted, “Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.” The problem is in believing that cameras (or any new technology) can be a quick fix in the absence of strong departmental policies that are fit-for-purpose and focused on strategic objectives. We should not be surprised, then, to see that cameras have not empirically demonstrated consistent effects, as a new systematic review shows. At a time when there is such momentum at making meaningful changes that will improve how police do their job, we should be mindful of the pitfalls of common sense. In 2014, body camera advocates did not expect that in 2020, a Louisville, Kentucky, police officer would simply fail to turn on his camera before entering an apartment. We should not be surprised when solutions that seem common-sense today fail to deliver on their promise in the future.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.