Operation of police BWCs

In their analysis of police officer views of BWCs, Pelfrey and Keener (2016, 500) report that “the biggest concern they [police officers] faced was knowing when to turn on, and off, the camera.” That is, like with many other examples of the exercise of discretion, officers themselves are unsure of the protocols and practices that guide their use of the cameras. This conundrum is not unfounded; on the one hand, failing to capture an incident as it unfolds, particularly if it involves police use of force, could risk triggering concerns about police deviance notwithstanding the argument above regarding the likelihood of prosecution. On the other hand, they can choose to err towards recording most police interactions and risk a chilling effect on discretionary decisionmaking that might “turn you into a robot” (Rowe, Pearson, and Turner 2018, 88). Such action can also have an aggravating effect on an incident: that is, activating the camera can be seen as aggressive to some members of the public (Ariel et al. 2016) and may even result in an escalation of violence or non-compliance. Early model BWC devices had a limited battery life, raising concerns about retrievability and the limitations of data storage—particularly if required for the continuous recording of entire shifts. However, as the technology has become more sophisticated striking a balance between the appropriate and effective use of the technology has come to the fore.

The ability of officers in turning the camera on and off also has implications for procedural fairness. What gets filmed, and in whose interest, raises questions about the cameras and their ability to provide impartial and reliable evidence. “Fair and appropriate use [of BWCs] hinges on ... [when] to turn the camera on and off” (Taylor 2016, 130). This assertion has been supported by empirical evidence in recent years as multiple studies have revealed the tensions, politics, and impacts of switching the camera on, and off (Ariel et al. 2016; Rowe et al. 2018).

Lum et al. (2019) have identified 70 empirical studies of BWCs, mostly emanating from the United States. Most of these studies are perception based or randomized control trials (RCTs) that do not provide the necessary case contextual data on how the activation of the BWC potentially influences and shapes interactions. As such there is not yet a large enough evidence base to draw upon in order to understand exactly how, why, and when BWCs should be used in the multitude of contexts and scenarios in which police officers find themselves. However, it appears the public support limitations in the exercise of discretion to turn the cameras on and off, with only 38 percent of respondents to a recent survey suggesting the cameras should be operated at the discretion of officers (Clare et al. 2019). Indeed, due to the sheer variance of police work it would be folly to believe, and undesirable to attempt, guidance that could prescribe the use (or not) of BWCs for every eventuality. However, there are clear themes emerging, and this chapter draws upon what is currently known regarding police discretion to activate and deactivate the camera.

Illustrating the discretionary latitude in the United States on when to record, a report on police BWCs in the Phoenix (US) Police Department reported that “analysis of the camera meta-data indicated that only 13.2 to 42.2 percent of incidents were recorded” (Katz et al. 2014, 3). Similarly, a report by Denver’s (US) Office of the Independent Monitor (Mitchell 2014) found that numerous incidents where officers punched or used stun guns on suspects were not recorded; less than half of the 45 use-of-force incidents involving on-duty officers were recorded because the cameras were either turned off or experienced “technical problems.” Notwithstanding the difficulties such variation generates for comparative evaluative analysis in terms of ascertaining effectiveness, the lack of informed policy governing operational procedures potentially undermines claims that police BWCs can increase transparency and accountability, and raise significant evidentiary challenges (Bakardjiev 2015). Furthermore, and importantly, research conducted by White, Todak, and Gaub (2017) highlighted that citizens are not always aware when they have encountered an officer wearing a BWC, whether it is actively recording or not. Again, this raises questions as to whether the cameras can have the desired effects and whether they have been effectively deployed. A phone-based survey of people who had interacted with an officer wearing a BWC revealed that just over one-quarter of respondents reported being aware of its presence (see also McClure et al. 2017). This finding significantly undermines the methodological reliability of studies that aim to measure the impact of BWCs on citizen behavior, often using figures of assaults on officers, reports of resisting arrest, or reported officer injuries as proxies to measure the impact of the camera.

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