No clear evidence yet that body-worn police cameras provide benefits, say researchers

May 28, 2016

CALGARY, MAY 28 2016 — Two Toronto researchers say the jury is still out on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras on police.

Further, issues like cost, privacy and data storage of the captured footage complicate the matter even more.

Increasingly, police forces across Canada and the U.S. are looking to adopt body-worn cameras to improve accountability, boost community relations and reduce violence. For example, 100 Toronto police officers have been involved in  a year-long pilot project to test the effectiveness of body-worn cameras.

But Jihyun Kwon and Erick Laming, two PhD students in criminology at the University of Toronto, say there’s no clear evidence that the cameras provide the benefits that people expect.

Kwon and Laming have examined existing studies in North America about the effectiveness of the cameras, and they found mixed results. They are presenting the results of their research at the 2016 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary.

According to Laming, very few studies have been done on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras–in part because the technology is so new. There was one study in Edmonton, a handful in the U.S., and one is expected shortly in Toronto at the end of the city’s pilot project.

The results of the existing studies, the researchers argue, are not conclusive when it comes to reducing the use of force and the number of citizen complaints about police actions.

For example, one study in Rialto, California is often cited as showing evidence that body-worn police cameras work. According to that study, the use of force by officers dropped by 59% and complaints against officers by 87% when police began wearing cameras.

But Kwon says there’s a problem: The number of complaints being talked about was so small that the results are virtually meaningless.

So, if police forces decide to adopt cameras on the basis of existing studies, she says the decisions will not be based on robust evidence. “I want to emphasize that there are mixed findings about reducing the use of force and the number of complaints,” she says.

Laming says he and Kwon expect many police forces in Canada to take their cue from the pilot project in Toronto, once that project announces its conclusions.

But they warn that there are other issues to consider beyond effectiveness. Laming says a five-year program to equip a Canadian urban police force with body cameras will cost between $6 and $11 million. Canadian privacy laws, which prevent such data from being stored on third-party servers, will be an important part of that cost. Then there’s the issue of how long to keep any footage.

On the basis of current knowledge, then, Laming and Kwon assert that no police force should rush to adopt body cameras.

“You can’t adopt body cameras and say six months later that they are too expensive,” he explains.

Jihyun Kwon and Erick Laming will be presenting this research on May 29 at the 2016 Congress for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Calgary. This presentation is called “Blind Faith? Empirical Research and the Adoption of Body-Worn Cameras in Canadian Policing” and will take place at 8:15-10:00 am in Murray Fraser - 3340 on the University of Calgary campus. 


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