The NCSL Blog

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By Alison Lawrence

Recent studies are shedding light on the benefits, or lack thereof, of police-worn body cameras. State legislatures may benefit from and use this new information to help guide policy development.

police officer holding body cameraIn late October, the largest body camera study was released by The Lab @ DC.  It tracked more than 2,000 D.C. Metro Police officers to determine if wearing a body camera would change the way officers behave when interacting with the public.

The study found no significant differences in the behavior of officers wearing body cameras compared to those who didn’t for uses of force and civilian complaints. The authors also found that wearing body cameras did not have an impact on general police activity, such as writing tickets, making arrests and responding to calls, nor on the outcomes of cases prosecuted.

Behavior modification is just one of the goals for body camera use. In response to The Lab @ DC study, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said in a New York Times article that the cameras have many benefits that cannot easily be measured including more accurate investigations, better training and increased community trust and legitimacy. Two recent studies by the Urban Institute and the Police Executive Research Forum examined public perception of officers wearing body cameras.

Recent public polling by the Charles Koch Institute and the Police Foundation found that Americans feel interactions with police are getting worse around the nation but not necessarily in their own community. Further, nearly 70 percent responded that they want to be part of the solution by providing input during the development of agency rules and procedures.  Earlier this year, New York City Police Department updated its body camera policy based largely on public comment.

When South Carolina’s first-in-the-nation law to require every police agency in the state to implement a body camera program went into effect in June 2016, a major factor was the cell-phone video that captured the killing of Walter Scott by a police officer. Critical incidents like the one involving Scott have spurred legislative attention on body camera policies over the last few legislative sessions.

There is a growing body of resources available to legislators when deciding if body-worn cameras, along with their data, are worth their cost to purchase, train, operate and maintain in states.

This year Nevada—one of 12 states to enact a new body camera law—followed suit, passing a measure to require that agencies equip their officers with body cameras if they routinely interact with the public. In total, 34 states have enacted laws to address body-worn cameras. For summaries of all of state enactments please visit NCSL’s Body-Worn Camera page. 

Alison Lawrence manages NCSL’s adult justice work. Rich Williams, a former program principal in NCSL’s Criminal Justice program, is program manager of NCSL’s Family Economic Services contributed to this blog.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.