Law enforcement officers first began experimenting with body-worn cameras (BWCs) or body-worn video in 2005 in the United Kingdom. Their use in the United States expanded more slowly; in a survey conducted in August 2013, only 25 percent of law enforcement agencies indicated that they had deployed BWCs or video technology for their officers. Since then, however, the use of BWCs in US law enforcement agencies has exploded. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), nearly half (47%) of general-purpose law enforcement agencies had acquired BWCs for their officers by 2016, primarily for reasons such as improving officer safety, increasing the quality of evidence, reducing civilian complaints, and reducing agency liability.
Research-based evidence on the effects of BWCs can vary according to the community, pre-established community trust in law enforcement, and the type of law enforcement agency involved in the research. A 2014 study randomly assigned nearly 1,000 officers to an experimental group in which the officers were equipped with BWCs that recorded their contacts with the public or a control group, in which officers did not wear a BWC. Officers in the control group (not wearing BWCs) were twice as likely to be involved in use-of-force incidents than officers in the experimental group (wearing body cameras). Furthermore, officers wearing body cameras experienced a drop in civilian complaints from 0.7 per 1,000 public contacts to 0.07 per 1,000 contacts. However, other studies have found fewer encouraging effects when officers are permitted to turn their cameras on/off at their own discretion. A 2016 study conducted with over 2,000 patrol officers in eight different departments, examining more than two million officer-hours, found that use-of-force rates increased 71 percent when officers did not comply with departmental protocols and chose when to turn their BWCs on or off.
Given the relative newness of this technology, many law enforcement agencies have not yet implemented BWCs. Among agencies that have not yet purchased BWCs, they cite reasons such as costs and privacy concerns—for both officers and civilians. Indeed, the costs of maintaining BWCs, training officers on their use, and storing BWC video footage have often been overlooked when it comes to public support for BWCs. In addition to the base cost of purchasing the camera equipment, costs to agencies include ancillary equipment such as tablets or computers that allow officers to tag or identify data in the field; data storage and management; officer training; and camera program administration. A 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) estimated that the average agency spends between $800 and $1,200 for each BWC device, with some agencies spending up to $2,000 per camera. However, the most expensive aspect of a BWC program is data storage. While the costs of data storage depend on how many videos are stored, the file sizes, the length of time the files are stored, and how many videos are produced (i.e., the number of sworn officers wearing BWCs), individual agencies are responsible for finding a data management solution. Whether agencies choose a cloud-based third-party data vendor or an in-house server, the solution must be both secure and easily searchable. Agencies also often underestimate the amount of time staff may need to spend combing through videos for relevant or important data or responding to requests for video clips from the public.
As an example of the struggle faced by large law enforcement agencies, Washington DC’s Metropolitan Police Department generates a thousand hours of video footage per day. Only 40 percent can be deleted within 90 days, while the rest is required to be stored for months, years, or decades depending on statutes of limitations. When the New Orleans Police Department implemented its BWC program, it set aside $1.2 million over five years to outfit 350 officers, with the majority of its budget going to data management. Some law enforcement agencies simply cannot afford these administrative costs. A recent article by the Washington Post notes an annual cost of $20,000 (for both cameras and data storage) for a small agency near Chicago with only 17 sworn officers. Similarly, a small agency in Nebraska with only five officers faced rising annual costs of $15,000 after a state law required video to be stored for at least 90 days. Large or medium-sized suburban agencies such as Arlington County, Virginia, and Madison, Wisconsin also encounter hundreds of thousands of dollars for their BWC programs.
Although many police chiefs argue that BWCs can increase public trust and reduce the number of public complaints, the monetary costs of BWC programs remain unfeasible for agencies across the country. Through various sources of funding, the federal government has granted over $40 million to individual agencies for BWCs and data storage over the last five years, with state and local governments contributing additional funding. Before committing more federal dollars to BWCs, we advise conducting more research to establish the conditions under which BWCs are effective, as well as the cost-benefit ratio for agencies to opt in, depending on the conditions of their jurisdiction. Other research may include assessing what agencies can do to cut costs, such as identifying the optimal time data should be stored or if there are lower-cost data management solutions available. Because BWCs are a fairly new technology, with potentially controversial impacts on public privacy, criminal prosecution, and the rights of victims, more research will help establish the necessity of BWCs for different types of agencies (e.g., suburban, rural, or urban; large or small agency; or any pre-existing issues between the agency and the community, just to name a few) and provide more guidance on effective standards and departmental protocols that protect both officers and the public.