What do we want police body cams to do?

Fullerton Police Sgt. Jon Radus wears his body camera high on his chest attached with a magnetic device while on patrol in Fullerton, California, on February 16, 2017. | Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images

Taking a new look at one of the most commonly adopted police reforms in the country.

Not even the Memphis police chief could dismiss the video footage of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols being fatally beaten by cops in early January. On the day before its public release, police chief Cerelyn Davis declared the attack “heinous, reckless and inhumane.”

Friday night, the rest of the country saw what she meant. Officials released four videos — three from officers’ body cameras and one from SkyCop surveillance footage — that showed Memphis police punching, kicking, and clubbing Nichols, who did not fight back. The videos showed Nichols crying out for his mom, captured a police officer saying, “I hope they stomp his ass,” and showed that it took over 25 minutes for him to receive medical attention. The Shelby County district attorney ultimately brought charges including murder, assault, and kidnapping against the five police responsible.

Memphis has nominally implemented police reforms over the past few years, including 2,000 body-worn cameras for police, which the city started rolling out in 2016.

Body cameras, which UK officers began experimenting with in 2005, took off rapidly in the United States in the 2010s, following several high-profile police shootings that garnered viral national attention from footage that citizens recorded on their cellphones. When a grand jury declined in 2014 to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Brown’s family asked the nation to join them “in our campaign to ensure that every police officer working the streets in this country wears a body camera.”

President Obama’s Justice Department accelerated the deployment of body-worn cameras with a $23 million pilot program, and his Task Force on 21st Century Policing highlighted police-worn body cameras as one potential tool for improving community trust, albeit a costly one that came with privacy trade-offs. The camera programs were broadly popular with the public, and with police officers.

By 2016, nearly half of US law enforcement agencies — including in Memphis — had started to implement body camera programs, and today seven states have laws requiring officers to wear them. Yet while body-worn cameras have represented a widely adopted reform, it’s hard to find much evidence that they’ve substantially improved community trust.

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 American 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 we have suggests they have led to less use of force and provided more tools for holding rogue cops accountable — but, like most reforms, how they’re used matters.

What the empirical research tells us so far about police body cameras

Part of the confusion surrounding the question of whether police body cameras “work” stems from disagreements about what the technology was supposed to do in the first place.

Some activists hoped to see the cameras reduce or prevent police violence, bring more accountability for unethical officers, and boost community relations. By contrast, according to a 2018 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, just 34 percent of local police and sheriffs’ offices say they acquired body-worn cameras to reduce use of force, and only 57 percent said the goal was to improve community perceptions. The top reasons agencies cited (about 80 percent each) were to “improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, reduce civilian complaints, and reduce agency liability.”

Seventy-three percent said they hoped body cameras would improve accountability — though this figure includes officers looking to limit what they consider unfair complaints from the public, too.

A growing body of research has aimed to test whether police body cameras have delivered on these various objectives.

In the beginning, there were just a handful of studies, which made it difficult to draw any clear conclusions. One influential randomized controlled trial from 2012 on the Rialto, California, police department showed a 59 percent reduction in police use of force among officers wearing the cameras, and an 88 percent decline in citizens filing complaints. The Rialto department is relatively small, though, and researchers cautioned against drawing overly broad conclusions from their findings.

As the decade stretched on, more studies emerged that painted a blurrier picture. For example, a 2017 randomized controlled trial involving more than 2,000 police officers in Washington, DC, found officers who wore cameras used force at about the same rate as officers who did not. While the researchers concluded that using body cameras led to a 9 percent increase in use of force, the study’s confidence interval was large — meaning that the results actually showed anything ranging from a 12 percent reduction to a 30 percent increase.

A randomized controlled trial with the Milwaukee Police Department in 2018 found that police wearing body cameras conducted fewer stops and were less likely to receive citizen complaints, but used force no differently than their colleagues not wearing cameras. Meanwhile, a separate RCT conducted with the Las Vegas Police Department, also in 2018, found significant reductions in use of force among officers wearing cameras compared to those not wearing them.

In 2020, an influential meta-analysis that combined the top existing studies came to a careful conclusion, if a disappointing one for those who hoped at last for clarity: There “remains substantial uncertainty” about whether body cameras can reduce officer use of force, though the researchers acknowledged the variation in effects they observed “suggests there may be conditions in which [cameras] could be effective.” The meta-analysis also concluded that the body cameras “do not seem to affect other police and citizen behaviors in a consistent manner, including officers’ … arrest behaviors, dispatched calls for service, or assaults and resistance against police officers.”

While the meta-analysis concluded that body cameras can reduce citizen complaints, as researchers saw in Rialto and Milwaukee, the review emphasized that 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. All this back-and-forth sparked many news stories that the research is mixed and no real conclusions can be drawn — although it’s rare on any policy question for studies to reach a single, unanimous conclusion.

However, in 2021, researchers got a bit closer to some clarity.

That year, economists with the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice updated the 2020 meta-analysis with two more recent high-quality experiments. Adding the new data led them to conclude that, on average, police body cameras had reduced use of force in fatal and non-fatal encounters by nearly 10 percent, a significantly higher rate than what the other researchers in 2020 found, and they reached their newer estimate with a smaller confidence interval.

The researchers stressed that body cameras are clearly no magic solution, but said their findings provide firmer evidence to support the idea that the technology can meaningfully change policing outcomes, and are justified financially from a cost-benefit perspective. Still, more studies are needed to dig further into these questions, particularly to clarify what sorts of policies and enforcement mechanisms drive real success.

Body camera footage has helped lead to rare police convictions

Christopher Brown, a lawyer who has brought cases against police for excessive force, said body-worn camera footage has been essential for attorneys like him to get any justice in court.

In 2013, Wayne Jones, a 50-year-old Black man with schizophrenia, was tasered, beaten, and shot 22 times by police officers in Martinsburg, West Virginia. After Jones died, his family sued the city and police, but the case was dismissed three times, with a district court judge finding the officers were protected by a controversial legal shield for government officials known as qualified immunity.

Brown represented Jones’s family in appealing this lawsuit, and in 2020, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit issued a powerful verdict, saying Jones’s case could proceed to trial. “Although we recognize that our police officers are often asked to make split second decisions, we expect them to do so with respect for the dignity and worth of black lives,” the Fourth Circuit judge wrote.

“Without the body cam footage, we simply would have lost that case,” Brown told me. “The officers all circled the wagon, saying that my client was fighting back, struggling, wouldn’t listen to commands. The video contradicts that, and shows he was not moving.” The family reached a $3.5 million settlement with Martinsburg following a seven-year legal fight.

Of the few convictions of officers that have occurred in recent years, nearly all involved body camera or surveillance footage.

In 2018, a police officer in Texas was convicted of killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, in a case where body cam footage that contradicted the officer’s narrative played an influential role. A year later, an officer in Chicago was convicted of murdering Laquan McDonald, after dash-cam video showed McDonald walking away from the officers, despite an officer previously claiming McDonald had approached him with a knife.

Body cam footage was used extensively during the 2021 trial of the Minneapolis police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd, and in December 2022, two Washington, DC, officers were convicted of murdering Karon Hylton-Brown, following body camera footage released by the police department.

“Without footage, it’s nearly impossible to break the ‘blue wall,’” said Brown, referring to an unofficial code of silence police take to protect one another against brutality charges.

Yet only about 14 percent of fatal police shooting incidents since 2015 have had body camera footage available at all, according to a national database compiled by the Washington Post.

Footage also doesn’t always result in justice, and rarely even in charges. Just 21 police officers in the US were charged in 2021 with murder or manslaughter from an on-duty shooting. That’s a record high, according to an academic database that’s tracked such incidents since 2005, but each year police kill about 1,000 people nationwide.

Some racial justice advocates warn about the darker side of collecting body camera footage — as video evidence then used to prosecute civilians. A 2016 George Mason University study found that 92.6 percent of prosecutors’ offices nationally in jurisdictions where police wear body cameras have used that footage as evidence in cases against private citizens. The researchers also found prosecutors generally did not expect body-worn cameras would meaningfully increase trust between citizens and police.

Police body camera implementation matters a lot

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 immense 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.

Sometimes this sparks tougher enforcement and diminished discretion in the future for officers. Sometimes it ends with no consequence at all.

Legitimate risks remain around surveillance, and around 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 of events, yet a surveillance camera from a nearby building showed video evidence that contradicted the police and their doctored footage.

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 the people involved in an incident or the public can watch the videos in a timely manner.

Indeed, over the past decade, accessing recorded footage has been very difficult for individuals in some situations. 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. In Texas, the Dallas Morning News had to fight for three years to obtain body camera footage of the police officers who killed 32-year-old Tony Timpa in 2016.

The quick release of body camera footage in Memphis is unusual, and reflects what some experts are saying is a broader shift in how incidents of police violence are being handled.

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. It took 13 months and a court order for Chicago to release the footage of a police officer firing 16 bullets at Laquan McDonald. In Memphis, too, it took more than two years before the public could see police body camera footage of the 2018 shooting of 25-year-old Martavious Banks.

But more elected officials now say police chiefs are recognizing that this kind of secrecy will only undermine their agency’s credibility and effectiveness. In other cases, local governments are stepping up to craft clearer rules around disclosure. The DC City Council, for example, passed a law during the pandemic standardizing rules for the local police department to release footage. Prior to that law, DC police would simply deny or ignore video requests.

With Nichols, unlike Banks, Memphis police voluntarily released the footage within three weeks of the incident. And Davis, the police chief, emphasized the importance of not letting the involved officers review the footage prior to giving their official statements — an acknowledgment that this can lead to doctored narratives. Some have asked, though, if the fact that all five officers charged are Black played a role in the stronger enforcement of policies.

Ben Crump, an attorney representing Nichols’s family, addressed this point while applauding the speedy release of the video. “We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable,” Crump said. “No longer can you tell us we got to wait six months to a year.”

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