Police Use of Force: Body Cameras

Winston Smith

Everyone is on their best behavior when the cameras are running. The officers, the public—everyone.
– Ron Miller, Chief of Police, Topeka (Kansas) Police Department


In the previous installment of this series, I explored the broad historical context of the issue of police use of force. In this next part of the series, I aim to begin to explore policy alternatives which may curtail the use of violence and potentially improve policing.


What is clear, regardless of which side of the issue that an individual may fall on, is that there the civilian deaths at the hands of law enforcement is on the rise. As written in the previous installment in this series, in 2016 there were 1092 United States citizens killed by the police. This means that nearly 3 people were killed by police each day. This is an issue that craves for policy action as it is pervasive nationally, has affected too many families, and is one in which significant policy change can truly be applied. For there to be policy action, though, it will most likely be necessary for the policy to satisfy concerns in both viewpoints for it to be accepted, otherwise it will be seen as a continuation of the wrong doing each viewpoint sees as happening. These policy changes, as well, will also most likely happen at the state level where there is more a direct control over policing procedures and techniques along with the fact that the people who live under their police’s protection will most likely be the ones who would move for reform.

There a myriad of policy alternatives in this issue area that target different aspects of each of the viewpoints described above.  In this installment, we will focus on some of the more prominent policy alternatives. The first policy alternative is that of body-worn cameras. Body-worn cameras are able to “record what is happening when an officer is engaged in duties outside of the car in order to supplement or expand on officer’s activity when she/he is not visible to or in the range of the in-car camera.” These cameras are “mobile audio and video capture devices that allow officers to record what they see and hear” and can be attached to many parts of the body of an officer. For the implementation of the body-worn cameras, “policies and procedures will have to be put in place, or expanded on, to address several legal issues.” The legal issues that must be addressed are privacy, civil liberties protections, “when a camera should be used and when it should be turned on or not turned on”, whether the camera would require a procedure for public assessment and information requests, and other policy issues.

Much like Tom’s last post, it’s important to set evaluative criteria for policy alternatives. Across all of the policy alternatives explored in this series, I will use the following three. The first evaluative criteria will be effectiveness which is the “[l]ikelihood of achieving policy goals and objectives or demonstrated achievement of them (Kraft Furlong 2013, 185).” This evaluative criterion is imperative because when looking at an alternative, it would not be advisable to propose one in which does not address the problem in an adequate fashion.  When analyzing this issue, it has become apparent that it is incredibly politicized, so the political feasibility of a proposed alternative is key. Political feasibility measures the “extent to which elected officials accept and support a policy proposal (Kraft Furlong 2013, 185).” If a current alternative is not politically feasible, it does not seem advisable to propose it as a solution as it would have little to no chance of actually being implemented into law.

When applying the criteria of effectiveness to body-worn cameras, it is evident that these devices are very effective. In a 12 month study on “the impact of on-officer video cameras,” the Rialto Police Department found that “cameras reduced the rate of use-of-force incidents by 59 percent.” Along with the reduction in the use of force, the “cameras led to an 87.5 percent reduction in complaints.” An example of an implementation of a different type of recording is “former NYPD police commissioner Bernie Kerik, who implemented dash cams for his force, said that such footage overwhelmingly vindicates police versions of events.” Along with vindicating their version of events, the video footage has a “calming effect” as officers who behave inappropriately will have to face the consequences of these actions. There are also implicit advantages of this alternative when applying the criteria of effectiveness as body-worn cameras can be used for police training, “increase transparency”, and increase “citizen views of police legitimacy.” These cameras may also help police safety as the “use of a camera system, whether in-car or body-worn, can deter violence or other negative behavior and help to convict a person who would choose to attack an officer.” All of this data and the implicit advantages show that this type of alternative is incredibly effective at addressing the issues that police and citizens may face and help to ensure the safety of the officer and reestablish their rapport with the community and to help ensure the safety of the citizens who interact with the police.

The political feasibility of this alternative is hard to pin down, as this issue has not become politicized or associated with solely one political spectrum. There has been substantial work done on body-worn cameras in many states legislatures as “46 states introduced legislation or resolutions addressing body cameras” but only four states enacted laws requiring officers to begin wearing the cameras in 2015. This obviously shows that there is now a political movement towards these policies, but one that is very cautious. This could signify that elected officials might be coming around to the idea of accepting and supporting these ideas as they are spending political capital to either investigate the idea or even pass it into law.  

Stay tuned for next week’s post wherein I explore the viability of implementing a special prosecutor to investigate police misconduct.

Photo Credit: Bob Owen/ZUMA Press/Newscom


Kraft, Michael, and Scott Furlong. 2013. Public Policy: Politics, Process, And Alternatives. 4th Ed. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications.

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