Body worn cameras have continued to grow in popularity across the United States. The popularity was the result of extensive government funding and an expectation from the public for their use. Additionally, there were several officer involved shootings that were recorded by bystanders using cell phones and posted online, which spurred a public demand for agency video evidence of the shootings. Some of these officer involved shootings resulted in charges being filed and convictions of the officer, including the very recent Derek Chauvin conviction, while others resulted in acquittal. Regardless, the expected outcome of body worn cameras by the public and law enforcement agencies is that officers will act more professional, knowing that they are being recorded. The public was expected to act more appropriately knowing that they were being recorded also. When a person acts with greater self-awareness to adhere to social standards, it is referred to as the “civilizing effect.” Seventy four percent of Americans support the use of body worn cameras and expect their usage to protect the safety and civil rights of both officers and civilians (Smykla, Crow, Crichlow, & Snyder, 2016).
The idea that a person changes their behavior while being watched, was extensively studied by industrial organization psychologists. The Hawthorne experiments were conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works in Chicago, Illinois (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981). The experiment was designed to measure the brightness of the work area in relation to worker productivity (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981). The researchers hypothesized a positive correlation between an increase in productivity and an increase in luminosity (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981). Prior to the experiments, workers were notified that they would be observed by researchers. The researchers found inconsistent results with no clear correlation between luminosity and performance (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981). Instead, the researchers discovered that worker productivity increased every time the researchers were observing the workers (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981). As a result, the Hawthorne experiment, now known as the Hawthorne Effect concluded that supervision was a stronger factor in employee performance, rather than pay, as previously believed (Franke and Kaul, 1978; Pritcher, 1981; McCarney, Warner, Illiffe, van Haselen, Griffin, & Fisher, 2007).
As mentioned above, there are many reasons to believe that body worn cameras will create a safer and more professional environment for law enforcement officers and the public. However, there are drawbacks. Body worn cameras and their required servers are expensive. Additionally, there is an added cost of officer training and administrative functions. In 2015, the United States Department of Justice awarded 23 million dollars to law enforcement agencies to assist in funding their body worn camera programs (Yokum, Ravishankar & Coppock, 2017).
Researchers have found mixed results on the efficacy of body worn cameras, with numerous results of no reduction in police use of force actions or citizen complaints. A study conducted by Yokum et al., (2017) utilized the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department. The researchers equipped some officers with body worn cameras and others without them. Over the course of 11 months the researchers measured self-reported uses of force, citizen complaints, and arrests for disorderly conduct (Yokum et al., 2017). The researchers found no statistically significant difference in results between the two groups. However, there was a slight increase in uses of force actions with officers using body worn cameras.
So what is the future of body worn cameras? Regardless of the evidence that body worn cameras are ineffective in reducing law enforcement uses of force, misconduct, and public adherence to authority, public support and governmental funding continues to drive the expectation of their use. Ultimately, federal funding and public demand will continue to create a need for body worn cameras.