Optimizing Police Body-worn Cameras to Improve Police-community Relations
In the following blog post, Ermus St. Louis shares the underlying ideas behind his co-authored article titled “Police Use of Body-Worn Cameras: Challenges of Visibility, Procedural Justice, and Legitimacy,” which was recently published in the journal Surveillance & Society.
In 2012, before body-worn cameras (BWCs) became popular, I interviewed 12 Black men to learn about their various experiences interacting with the police and how these experiences have shaped their attitudes toward law enforcement. When asked to recommend a way to improve police-citizen encounters, all participants said the best option is to equip all officers with personal cameras. Two years later, I began working on my Ph.D. with a general focus on police and technology, which quickly shaped into a particular focus on BWCs. This came about through my participation in a study evaluating the local police department’s BWC pilot program beginning in 2015.
Based on early studies and my own work, I recognized early on it is only a matter of time before BWCs become a daily tool used by police as both officers and civilians alike favor the cameras. Convinced that the BWC will continue to play a critical role in policing, and realizing that there will be many challenges to its implementation, I have decided to dedicate my research to helping police maximize technology, especially BWCs. Simply stated, my interest is to support police leaders in understanding and exploring the most effective strategies to get patrol officers to use BWCs in ways that will benefit the public and improve the police profession as a whole.
The pressure is on for police to capitalize on the mutual agreement with the public that body-worn camera (BWC) policing is the best way to improve police-community relations.
This is a critical time for this type of collaborative research endeavor considering that police are under pressure to lower the cost of policing while still adopting a promising tool such as BWCs, which can be quite costly. Another reason why this type of work is necessary is that the BWC is not a “plug-and-play” technology and is a “double-edged sword” favored by police and civilians for varying reasons. What this means is that lack of civilian cooperation (i.e., helping police fight crime) and resistance on the part of officers may prove to be serious challenges to BWC-policing. Nevertheless, the pressure is on for police to capitalize on the mutual agreement with the public that BWC-policing is the best way to improve police-community relations. Research focused on helping police optimize BWCs is vital because this technology is not a plug-and-play solution for police problems; its effectiveness depends on many factors, including officer receptiveness to the cameras, how they are implemented and the degree of community and officer involvement in the implementation process.
This article marks the beginning of my quest to improve police-community relations through the study of police BWCs — police technology, more broadly. In this article, my co-authors and I argue that for BWCs to have the most significant and positive influence on police-community relations, we must examine and actively address the relational aspect involved with implementing this critical resource. In other words, if the people who are most impacted by the cameras (i.e., officers and civilians) are not significantly involved in the implementation process, BWCs will fail to meet the goal of improving public perceptions of police legitimacy. With interest in helping police avoid this fate, we outline two initiatives that police should adopt to optimize BWCs.