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Policy 10: Body Cameras

Body cameras have become the most popular political response to recent incidents of police misconduct and brutality. There is much debate about the effectiveness and desirability of body worn cameras by community groups and advocates. Some communities and many elected officials believe that if properly regulated, body-worn cameras for police officers may be a tool to increase accountability, transparency, and collect evidence of police misconduct.

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Communities must decide whether these potential benefits outweigh privacy and other concerns, such as police misuse. Additionally, communities must be involved in the development of departmental protocols to shape when body cameras are mandated for use. If community members advocate for a body cameras, the policy should include a community agreed upon provision outlining when cameras must be activated and a provision applying a presumption of police misconduct if footage is unavailable (when it was supposed to be recorded).

Perhaps more than any other policy solution, body cameras should not be the sole police reform advocated for. To realize benefits, a body camera mandate must be preceded or accompanied by additional policies that support a community-centered culture shift and increased accountability with timely and appropriate discipline for misconduct and abuse in police departments. Otherwise, officers and departments may utilize body cameras only when it advantages them or exclusively as a surveillance tool to monitor community activity. Individuals’ safety and privacy interests must also be weighed against accountability goals in considering whether body cameras are a net benefit to community interests. Other sources of video footage such as bystander cell phones are potentially equally or more valuable as they tend to capture police action, not just the behavior of the person the camera is facing. Protections for civilians who video record police behavior (who are commonly threatened with charges or actually charged) may be equally or more valuable than body worn cameras for officers, with few of the privacy downsides that police surveillance carries.

In Practice:

A 2012 study evaluating the use of body-worn cameras by the Rialto police department in California over a period of 12 months suggests more than a 50% reduction in the total number of incidents of use-of-force. Force was twice as likely to have been used by officers who were not wearing cameras. Complaints about police officers fell 88% compared to the previous 12-month period.

However, despite some success stories, the efficacy of body cameras is not clear. A U.S. Justice Department investigation into the Albuquerque police department found that the use of the cameras in practice was “highly inconsistent.” Officers sometimes failed to turn their cameras on when they initiated encounters with civilians. Additionally, incidents involving body camera footage were not always properly documented, and the implementation of body cameras generally involved little oversight from the department.

Best Practices:

Promoting body cameras has become a popular reaction to police misconduct. Body cameras should only be enacted if they are supported by communities and include clear and enforceable regulations around their use and strong privacy protections for community members.

  • Body camera mandates should include a provision outlining when cameras must be activated. These mandates should be a reflection of the desires of community members and advocates.
  • Body camera mandates should include a provision applying a presumption of police misconduct if mandated footage is unavailable for any interaction with civilians for any duration, regardless of cause.
  • Police tampering of cameras or footage should carry criminal penalties.
  • Body camera mandates must be preceded or accompanied by additional policies that support a community-centered culture shift and increased accountability in police departments.
  • Body camera mandates must be preceded or accompanied by a policy mandating a special prosecutor in all cases of police use of force against civilians. Otherwise, the inherent conflict of interest due to relationships between local police and prosecutors may negate even the most compelling footage.
  • There must be clear procedures for access to body camera footage, which both protect the privacy of individuals captured on body cameras and ensure public accountability for officers involved in misconduct.
  • City budgets typically earmark disproportionately high funding for police departments—departments should not receive additional funding for body cameras. Rather, body cameras should be supplied to departments by the state or locality.
  • The civilian right to film police officers must be protected.
  • A portion of money set aside for body-worn cameras should be diverted to establishing and supporting community-based video oversight programs like CopWatch.