Police Videos: The Benefits of In-Car and Body-Worn Cameras

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Police Vidoes

Police cameras and videos
A police officer on camera on a traffic stop. Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

As the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. How much more, then, would a video be worth? To police officers, the agencies they work for and the citizens they serve, the value is nearly exponential. From enhanced evidence collection capabilities to reductions in complaints against officers, the introduction of in-car police cameras and body-worn video devices have been a boon to law enforcement.

Despite the benefits, there are some potential downsides as well. As the use of these devices proliferates, aspiring law enforcement officers and veteran cops alike should consider the benefits of and detriments of police in-car cameras and body worn videos.

The Good

The numbers don’t lie. In most every meaningful category regarding police performance, the introduction of in-car cameras and body-worn video drastically improved outcomes, both for officers and agencies. The most notable improvements came from the reduction seen in complaints filed and sustained against officers and the reduction of police use of force incidents.

In Rialto, California, a U.S. Department of Justice study cited a 60 percent reduction in uses of force after cameras were deployed to the police department. The same department also reported that citizen complaints against officers dropped by 88 percent from the year before cameras were introduced to the year after.

Mesa, Arizona reported similarly significant drops, with a 40 percent reduction in citizen complaints and 75 percent drop in use of force complaints.

With regards to officer performance, police video cameras provide two important effects. The obvious effect is that more interactions with citizens are documented, so that when a complaint comes in it is readily reviewable.

Videos reduce the need for lengthy investigations by internal affairs investigators, and the International Association of Chiefs of Police reports that officers with cameras are exonerated 96 percent of the time when a complaint comes in.

The greater effect, though, is that the presence of cameras appears to alter behavior, both for citizens and officers. The fact is, as has been shown in multiples studies like the one in Rialto, officers are more likely to adhere to the high ethical standard they are held to when they are on tape. Likewise, when a citizen knows they are being recorded during a police encounter, they are less likely to act out against the officer. Better behavior by both parties reduces the probability that a situation could escalate, thus reducing circumstances that would lead to a complaint.

The benefits of cameras aren’t restricted to behavior. They are also invaluable evidence collection tools, whether documenting constitutionally correct searches or a DUI driver’s performance during field sobriety exercises. Police videos are fast becoming an indispensable tool in the courtroom as they can bolster an arresting officer’s testimony during trial.

The Bad

All of the benefits of police videos aside, there are costs associated with their use.

The first and perhaps most obvious is, of course, the actual cost.

Cameras are expensive enough, especially robust in-car systems which often have price tags of several thousand dollars per unit. In addition to the cameras, though, there is also the cost of servers, storage and other related equipment since every piece of video recorded becomes a matter of public record or evidence.

Even for wealthy departments, the nuts and bolts of implementing an in-car or body-worn video program can be daunting. There are also legal and constitutional and privacy considerations as well, particularly with body-worn cameras. Policies have to be developed to decide when what and how to record, how the videos should be retained and what and when they should be released.

The Ugly

While videos can present an unbiased, actual account of what’s occurred in a police encounter, there are times when context is missing, especially when the videos make their ways to YouTube and other social media outlets.

Without context, even justifiable videos can degrade trust in law enforcement depending on who controls the narrative.

And then there are those videos that actually do depict deplorable police behavior. While videos reduce complaints and uses of control, they have not yet eliminated them, and for some officers, the mantra seems to have been “go big or go home.” When police videos – which are generally public records – surface showing officers acting badly, they often make big news and big problems for agencies.

To Record or Not to Record?

The benefits to the public and to the police far outweigh the perceived downsides to in-car and body-worn cameras. Even the cost of units can potentially be offset by the reduction in liabilities associated with uses of force.

In truth, cameras have been shown to help the police officers police themselves, improve officer and citizen behavior and stabilize the public’s trust. When it comes to video recording of police encounters, the real question for police departments and individual officers alike should probably be “can we afford not to use them?”