The Colorado Springs Police Department logs an average of 1,000 videos a day from officers’ body worn cameras, totaling over 1.1 million videos and 250 terabytes of storage since adopting the technology in 2016.

Police wearing body worn cameras doesn’t actually make civilians safer

After an early study showed positive BWC outcomes, a rush to outfit law enforcement has yet to clearly reduce use of force on civilians

By LJ Dawson
By LJ Dawson

Founder of The Des and freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C.

As pressure on law enforcement agencies for accountability and transparency continues to rise, body worn cameras have been a popular reform across the country. Colorado’s own landmark police reform bill passed in summer 2020 includes new requirements statewide for the technology’s use. But research shows that the cameras are not a sure method for reducing use of force by officers and increasing transparency between law enforcement and the public. 

Body worn cameras saw an influx of federal funding after the Obama administration designated over $23 million in grants to law enforcement agencies across the country in 2015 partly pushed to act by the police officer killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. 

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost half of the general law enforcement agencies nationwide had body worn cameras in 2016 while close to 70 percent of them used dash cameras. Eighty percent of large departments, 500 or more full-time officers, had body cameras.

A Colorado police department in Colorado Springs adopted body worn cameras beginning in 2016 and implemented the devices for most patrol officers in early 2017. Today, 550 officers use the cameras which cost an average of $1,000 per year to maintain and store video. The department’s policy requires officers to activate the cameras to record “all contacts with individuals in the performance of official duties” but does not include “routine duties” such as court related activities. 

The a recent review on body worn cameras by George Mason University focused on 30 studies and published Sept. 9, 2020. Despite an early 2014 study based in California that found police wearing body cameras were two times less likely to use force, the September review found that results varied too widely in the last six years to determine a direct correlation between the cameras and a reduction in officers’ use of force. 

Though the use of body worn cameras has not been proven to lead to better relationships between police officers and the communities they serve, the study found an overall reduction in complaints against officers though how or why is “unclear”. The study does report that officers themselves either like or grow to like body worn cameras likely due to officers’ view of the body worn camera footage as a “means for protecting themselves from frivolous complaints or one‐sided stories about their conduct.” Officers also view the cameras as valuable tools to gather evidence.

The study suggests that the policies surrounding usage of body worn cameras and procedures to release the footage determine whether or not increased community trust can be built by their implementation. Without “clear policies and practices for promptly releasing videos and handling internal investigations and disciplinary actions”, it reported that community relations will not improve. 

 

Daniel Lawrence, a principal research associate at the Urban Institute at Justice Policy Center, a nonpartisan social and economic research organization located in Washington, D.C., has studied body worn cameras since 2015. 

 

In a 2017 study, Lawrence also found that “community members’ satisfaction with police was more positively influenced by officers’ procedurally just practices than by the presence of a body-worn camera alone.”

 

Lawrence did find in a study of Milwaukee police that the use of body worn cameras reduced the practice of targeted stops and increased policing where officers park their cars and walk around an area to interact with the public.  “We found there is a decrease in those highly volatile types of policing activities but an increase in more community [policing] activities,” Lawrence says. 

 

In use of force incidents, body worn cameras are limited in their perspective. “I would emphasize in especially the use of force investigations, the footage itself is useful, but it doesn’t provide the full context,” Lawrence says. 

 

Lawrence predicts the next step in body worn camera footage will be the automatic review through machine learning of officers conduct to hold them accountable for acting “polite, respectful,[and] humanizing towards the committee members.”

 

CSPD uses technology from Utility Inc., a U.S. based software and technology company, which automatically turns on the cameras due to a set number of triggers including an officer’s gun release, running and siren activation. Officers can also manually turn on their cameras with a remote wrist watch. Unlike the typical body worn camera that sits outside of an officer’s uniform, CSPD’s cameras snap into an inside pocket which prevents them from being knocked off. The department provides a pouch to place the camera in a “heavy-vest” used over the uniform when responding to situations that require body armor. 

 

The video is automatically uploaded to the CSPD’s cloud based storage system where the officer classifies the footage with tags depending on the type of call. The footage will be retained for the amount of time related to the tags — felonies are held for 99 years, but noncriminal related videos are only stored for 60 days. All video related to use of force is stored for five  years. 

 

Though an officer is required to activate his or her camera, the technology doesn’t always turn on and can malfunction, Kathi Wolf, a body worn camera technician that started with CSPD’s program in 2016, says.

 

Wolf says that the footage is only cell phone quality, and the angle of the footage is controlled by the officer’s stance which can often be a sideways position which indirectly faces a person called a “bladed stance.”

 

 “It’s not amazing Hollywood cameras doing the footage. It is just this cell phone,” she said. 

 

The camera’s are limited in their perspective and also aren’t equipped with night vision. Wolf says it’s important that the cameras are not better than what an officer can see. 

 

“We want it to be as close as possible to real life what an officer really saw in the moment,” Wolf says. If it’s too clear it could cause the public to clearly view a stapler when an officer acted because he or she saw a potential knife. 

 

But still the camera is not a perfect representation even of what an officer saw. “It’s another perspective. It’ll never be exactly what they saw until we implant their eyeballs,” Wolf says. 

 

The officer’s body camera is only one of four ways that a police encounter can be recorded. Most law enforcement’s vehicles have dash cameras that also record incidents. Surveillance cameras surrounding an area can also catch a recording, and a citizen can record from their cell phone. 

 

2020 study by Christopher Slobogin on the effect of different video sources on viewers’ judgement of officer intent found that body camera footage leads people to judge officers’ actions as more justified and deliver more lenient punishments. The citizen in the encounter is more easily visible in the footage, and the attachment of the camera to a uniform is “unable to adequately capture certain use of force movements that are important in determining an officer’s intent,” according to the study. 

 

“It’s just one other tool. It’s one other, almost like another witness, and you can interpret it how you want. But it’s just another way to do it,” Wolf says. She adds that “in the scope of everything,” body worn cameras are still a new technology for police officers. 

 

With the passing of SB 20-217 CSPD will need to add almost 250 more cameras to its ranks by July 2023 even though it has a head start on some of Colorado’s other law enforcement agencies who have yet to adopt the technology. 

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