Context

Culture

The cultural context in society determines how bodycams will be seen by the public. In a high-trust environment, the bodycam may be seen as an effective tool to improve policing. But in a situation where the bodycam is introduced to regain trust in the police, the bodycam and the rules determining its uses may fuel intense debate. This can also depend to a considerable degree on recent political and societal developments that prompted the introduction of the bodycam. In a community where the media have reported on police misconduct or abuse of power, the bodycam can be perceived completely differently from how it is perceived in a community where the level of trust between law enforcement and the general public is high.

Task

A police officer who uses a bodycam when answering emergency calls for assistance may face reactions from the public that are different from those towards an officer engaging in community policing. The expectations of the public will be different depending on the reason for interaction with the police and the bodycam can either positively or negatively influence the contact.

Location

People in residential areas may react differently to the appearance of police officers with bodycams from people in a night-time area with bars and clubs. The expectation of privacy will be different, as well as the rational behavior of people intoxicated by drugs or alcohol. Another situation is public transportation. where most commuters will not be surprised to see an officer wearing a bodycam as most train stations and vehicles are equipped with video surveillance anyway. This means that the impact of bodycams on the public will vary with the location where they encounter an officer with a bodycam.

The combination

The most important aim in developing the framework is not to take apart the inner workings of bodycams to the most intricate level. The main idea behind it is that each of the three clusters of variables is connected to the other two and that by focusing on only one or two no project will likely be successful. At the center of the framework we see the officer wearing the bodycam. That is where everything comes together: technology, policy, and context. All three clusters of variables impact on each other and deserve attention.

Three examples can clarify how focusing on all three clusters within the framework is the only way to prevent unwanted or unexpected outcomes:

  • 1 If a police department does not carefully develop a policy that tells officers when to wear the bodycam, when to activate it, and when to use the recordings, the bodycam may produce positive, negative, or no effects at all. This has been proven in the multi-site experiments that were discussed above. The point is that this can happen even with perfect technology and within a perfectly suitable context.
  • 2 Even if the best bodycam available on the market has been selected and even if the policy is well thought out with full compliance by officers, results may still not be positive. This was proven in Washington D.C., where the bodycams did not lead to a reduction in the number of complaints against officers similar to what was found in Rialto. This is the result of a consequence from a difference in starting point: there is not much that bodycams can achieve in an environment where there is hardly any room for improvement to begin with.
  • 3 Pay careful attention to the technology: not all bodycams are created equal. Technical choices may result in undesired effects, such as the ones experienced by the police in some parts of Germany. There, aggression towards officers increased because of the design of the bodycam: the for-ward-facing screen was too attractive to some offenders, prompting them to come very close to the officers even after being ordered to keep their distance. Thus, the bodycam escalated the interaction instead of bringing down the temperature in the room. This is the opposite effect of what happened in Amsterdam, where the policing context is very comparable and the policies were almost identical, but the outcomes were completely different because of the design of the bodycam.

Don’t oversimplify, don’t despair, don’t be a technical reductionist

The advantage of this framework is that it shows all variables that can have an impact on bodycam projects. The downside of the framework is that it shows all variables that can have an impact on bodycam projects. Being aware of the complexities of the technology is however the only way to avoid unexpected or counterproductive outcomes.

In an effort to support practitioners and academics, I end this contribution with three recommendations. First: don't oversimplify. It is tempting to publish only those parts of research that are unique or new. But, as has been suggested by others, the usability of bodycam research would improve considerably if a standardized description of the specific context were part of publications about studies in individual departments (Malm 2019). My recommendation is to also add descriptions of the technology and of the policy. We need to accept the fact that our idiosyncratic findings may not be relevant to others and we should actively push out the information others need to decide if they are. Second: don’t despair. The framework may first give the impression that there is an overwhelming number of unique combinations of variables. But patterns soon start to emerge once you familiarize yourself with the logic of the framework: the number of relevant context-mechanism-outcome configurations (Pawson and Tilley 1997) is definitely larger than most of us realized five years ago, but their number is limited. And third: don’t be a technical reductionist. Bodycams are not so much a technical tool as they are a social intervention that impacts on the complex relationship between police and public. The dream of the perfect bodycam that will quickly fix all problems of modern policing may be over, but being awake feels a lot better.

Notes

  • 1 The rest was from the United Kingdom (7), Canada (2), Australia (1), Norway (1), or Uruguay (1). So. only two of seventy were from outside the Anglo-Saxon countries.
  • 2 This does not necessarily mean that police officers are opposed to body-worn cameras (BWCs): “While it is popular to think that the main purpose of BWCs is to expose police misconduct and correct it, and thus that police do not like BWCs, the opposite appears to be the case. ... Examinations of officer perceptions of the technology in the U.S. have shown strong support before officers are assigned bodycams which even increases post-deployment” (White and Coldren 2017).
  • 3 Recently, three RCT-evaluations of body cameras in Europe were done and the outcome measures were aggressive behavior towards and violence against police officers. The studies were done in Germany (Kersting et al. 2019), Sweden (Marklund and Tollin 2020), and The Netherlands (Flight 2019). The reports were published in German, Swedish, and Dutch which is why they did not feature in meta-evaluations that limit their queries to English-language publications.
  • 4 Not only are the goals different, the ways in which outcomes are measured are different too, which makes it very difficult to compare results from different studies. Aili Malm recently urged the research community to use the same outcome measures whenever possible (Malm 2019). In my view, a good candidate for a “standard" instrument to measure officers’ perceptions is the questionnaire that was developed for the comparison of three police forces in the United States (Gaub et al. 2016). This questionnaire has already been used by others (e.g., Newell 2017; Flight 2019).

References

Ariel, Barak. William Farrar, and Alex Sutherland. 2015. “The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens' Complaints against the Police: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 31(3): 509 535.

Ariel, Barak, Alex Sutherland, Darren Henstock, Josh Young, Paul Drover, Jayne Sykes, Simon Megicks, and Ryan Henderson. 2016. “Wearing Body Cameras Increases Assaults against Officers and Does Not Reduce Police Use of Force: Results from a Global Multi-Site Experiment.” European Journal of Criminology 13(6): 744-755.

Ariel, Barak, Alex Sutherland. Darren Henstock, Josh Young, and Gabriela Sosinski. 2018. “The Deterrence Spectrum: Explaining Why Police Body-Worn Cameras ’Work’ or ‘Backfire’ in Aggressive Police-Public Encounters.” Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice 12(1): 6-26.

Durkheimer, Michael. 2017. “Why Don’t Police Body Cameras Work Like We Expected?” Forbes, October 23. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeldurkheimer/ 2017/10/23/why-dont-police-body-cameras-work-like-we-expected/#62339aed 1244.

Flight, Sander. 2018. “Opening Up the Black Box: Understanding the Impact of Bodycams on Policing.” European Law Enforcement Research Bulletin 4 (SCE): 47-59.

Flight, Sander. 2019. “Focus: Evaluatie pilot bodycams Politic Eenheid Amsterdam 2017-2018.” Den Haag: SDU.

Gaub, Janne, David Choate, Natalie Todak, Charles Katz, and Michael White. 2016. “Officer Perceptions of Body-Worn Cameras Before and After Deployment: A Study of Three Departments.” Police Quarterly 19(3): 275-302.

Hedberg, E.C., Charles M. Katz, and David E. Choate. 2017. “Body-Worn Cameras and Citizen Interactions with Police Officers: Estimating Plausible Effects Given Varying Compliance Levels.” Justice Quarterly 34(4): 627-651. doi:10.1080/ 07418825.2016.1198825.

Jacobs, Jane. 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House.

Kersting, Stefan, Thomas Naplava, Michael Reutemann, Marie Heil, and Carola Scheer-Vesper. 2019. "Die deeskalierende Wirkung von Bodycams im Wachdienst der Polizei Nordrhein-Westfalen: Abschlussbericht.” Gelsenkirchen: Institut für Polizei- und Kriminalwissenschaft der Fachhochschule für öffentliche Verwaltung NRW.

Lum. Cynthia. Megan Stoltz, Christopher S. Köper, and J. Amber Scherer. 2019. “Research on Body-Worn Cameras: What We Know, What We Need to Know.” Criminology & Public 18(1): 93-118.

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Marklund, Fredrik, and Katharina Tollin. 2020. “Kroppsburna kameror: En utvärdering av pilotverksamheten i polisregion Stockholm." Rapport 2020: 1. Stockholm: Bra.

Newell. Bryce Clayton. 2017. “Collateral Visibility: A Socio-Legal Study of Police Body-Camera Adoption. Privacy, and Public Disclosure in Washington State.” Indiana Law Journal 92(4): 1329-1399.

Pawson. Ray, and Nicholas Tilley. 1997. Realistic Evaluation. London: Sage.

Suss, Joel, Alexis Raushel. Adam Armijo, and Brian White. 2018. “Design Considerations in the Proliferation of Police Body-Worn Cameras.” Ergonomics in Design 26(3): 17-22.

White, Michael D.. and James R. Coldren. 2017. "The Impact of Body-Worn Cameras: Perceptions and Reality.” Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs.

 
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