The fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, generated political and media backlash that continues to erode law enforcement legitimacy today. As a result, the Taskforce on Twenty-first Century Policing was mandated to reduce crime and build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.
A key recommendation from the taskforce was to equip police departments with body-worn cameras and commit to purchasing 50,000 cameras for police officers nationwide. To date, between 4,000 and 6,000 body-worn cameras have been adopted by the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S., and these numbers are expected to rise considerably in the coming years.
Body-worn cameras are believed to increase law enforcement transparency and accountability, and by proxy restore law enforcement legitimacy. But are they really a game-changer in contemporary policing? There are many claims about the perceived benefits and drawbacks of body-worn cameras, which stem from the media and public opinion. There also is extensive discussion about the potential existence of a so-called “Ferguson Effect,” which is long on anecdotes but short on data. Furthermore, research is sparse on the experiences and attitudes of law enforcement officers in response to the growing demand for this technology.
To address this knowledge gap, a study by researchers at Florida Atlantic University and the University of the West of Scotland, is the first to use ethnographic or qualitative research to provide deeper insight into law enforcement officers’ personal experiences with and perspectives on body-worn cameras. The study, published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology, illustrates police officers’ perspectives on one of the most overt strategic changes to modern American policing.
Results of the study reveal that overwhelmingly, body-worn cameras have prompted a new consciousness in law enforcement, and according to one police officer, “have compelled changes in officer behaviors.” While the researchers found an increased conceptual awareness of procedural justice, they also found a reduction in police morale and an emphasis on proactive policing strategies. They note that Ferguson often is drawn upon as a reference point among police officers.
“It is clear that police officers are grappling to understand and come to terms with their diminished role, and declining levels of public respect and cooperation,” said Seth Wyatt Fallik, Ph.D., lead author and an assistant professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice within the College for Design and Social Inquiry. “Solutions for healing the rift between police and citizens should not solely be the responsibility of police.”
The study is based on a long and deep immersion in the field in two counties in a Southern U.S. state as a means of generating insider knowledge. Both counties fully deployed body-worn cameras in early 2016. Field observations included ride-alongs, covert surveillance work, pre-deployment briefings, and rest breaks with officers and sheriff’s deputies of various ranks and responsibilities. In addition to adopting the “participant as observer” role, field experiences were probed with in-depth semi-structured interviews. Questions focused on the impact of officer confidence, morale, and policing strategies in the post-Ferguson era.
“Being accepted by the study participants prompted our formal and informal dialogs and allowed the police officers to share their body-worn camera insights without repercussion,” said Ross Deuchar, Ph.D., co-author and an affiliate professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, and a professor and assistant dean at the University of the West of Scotland, who conducted the four-month field work as a visiting Fulbright Scholar at FAU. “Officers were under no obligation to participate in the study and could – without penalty – withdraw their consent to be included in these analyses at any time.”
Deuchar observed citizen behavior through car windows, engaged in informal dialog with local people on the streets, visited people’s homes to respond to local reported crime issues, and even wore a police ballistic vest. During this time, he also routinely observed officer behavior and listened to officer dialog with other officers and with citizens.
In general, the study shows that police officers’ perceptions of body-worn cameras were positive. Officers believe that the cameras protect them like an “extra set of eyes” and provide a better idea of what really happens during their public encounters, offering a more complete narrative of what actually transpired when the facts of an incident are contested. Among their concerns are that the body-worn cameras restrain their work and will not overcome public attitudes toward police and public bias against police officers. Most of the officers felt that focusing on a few rogue cops and playing negative images across multiple news cycles do little to improve public perception of the police.
Other results of the study show that body-worn cameras also prompted changes in citizens’ behaviors and resulted in reduced numbers of complaints levied against the police because they knew that the officers were wearing cameras. Regarding the use of force, the researchers note that Taser use also declined with the adoption of body-worn cameras. Collectively, police officers believe that body-worn cameras have the ability to foster a culture of accountability for law enforcement as well as citizens.
“One of the interesting aspects from our study is that during the interviews many of the officers went out of their way to report that most law enforcement officers are good or are doing the right thing,” said Vaughn J. Crichlow, Ph.D., co-author and an assistant professor in FAU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice. “One detective even told us that he believed that ‘no good cop should fear a camera.'”