Police and public interactions have been under scrutiny as more departments across the country require video surveillance of officers, first with vehicle mounted dash-cams and more recently body worn cameras, or BWCs.
Activists, politicians, media outlets and academics have long advocated the use of BWCs to improve transparency and accountability for officers in their daily work and in controversial cases. But a recent study entitled “Police Body-Worn Cameras: Perceptions of Law Enforcement Leadership” published in the American Journal of Criminal Justice by researchers at the University of West Florida and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, suggests BWCs enjoy strong support among law enforcement agencies.
“Law enforcement leadership sees BWCs as a way for the officers to tell their side of the story,” said Dr. Matthew Crow, chair of the University of West Florida Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Crow became interested in the use of BWCs when a former student approached him with questions.
“"The student was now a law enforcement officer, who came to me asking about BWCs,” Crow said. “This was before Ferguson. I was not familiar with them.”
Crow said he began to look for more information on the subject, but his searches came up short.
“There was nothing out there,” he said. “A few news articles, but no serious academic study.”
Interested, Crow began looking into the issue informally.
“I started cold-calling agencies and asking about BWCs,” he said. “Many of them were willing to be a part of research about the issue.”
Crow saw a definite gap in research, so he, working with Dr. Jamie Snyder from UWF and Drs. John Smykla and Vaughn Crichlow from FAU, began a study.
Crow and his colleagues surveyed “a large southern county with 27 local law enforcement agencies, home to a number of state and federal law enforcement agencies, and a population of approximately 1.3 million people,” he said.
“We decided to focus on law enforcement leadership’s perception of BWCs,” Crow said. “We wanted to find out what the main stakeholders of the law enforcement community thought.”
In March 2015, surveys were distributed to the leadership in the sample group, with 24 returned successfully completed. Fifty percent of those surveyed said they supported the use of BWCs, with another third of respondents being undecided.
“We expected mixed results,” Crow said. “But it was interesting that the majority supported the use of BWCs.”
With many high profile cases, such as the shootings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and other lethal force incidents featured prominently in the news, public trust of law enforcement has slipped considerably. According to a recent Gallup poll, those numbers are at their lowest level since 1993. BWCs are a response to that mistrust, Crow said.
“The use of BWCs has developed quickly as a response to public outcry,” he said. “Many in leadership see the use as a positive thing as it will be available if a situation arises.”
The study’s results bear the notion out – over half those surveyed said that they believe that “BWCs will assist in the collection of quality evidence.”
Pensacola Police Department Assistant Chief Tommi Lyter agrees.
“As we’ve brought in the cameras, it has really worked out in keeping the bad guys honest,” Lyter said. “Witness statements are more accurate, and when people try to change their stories, we have what they said on tape.”
Lyter was instrumental in the deployment of BWCs in Pensacola’s the city’s police force.
“This project was my baby,” Lyter said. “I saw this as the future of law enforcement and even since we’ve put them in use, the technology has improved.”
Lyter said the Police Department has already received a federal grant to expand their program this year.
The BWCs’ effectiveness also has been reflected in accusations against officers, Lyter said.
“I don’t have hard numbers yet, but I can tell you that our citizen complaints have decreased,” he said. “And our internal affairs complaints are down.”
If Lyter has one concern with BWCs, it’s the potential for the use of out-of-context video.
“It’s unfortunate, but it will happen,” Lyter said. “An officer who’s having a bad day or makes a mistake is going to be judged on two minutes of video by the media, instead of the whole of their work.”
The numbers in the BWC survey reflects this fear as well. Sixty percent of those surveyed agreed that the “media will use data from BWCs to embarrass or persecute police.”
“There are literally thousands of hours of footage that is either mundane or helpful to the police,” Crow said. “But in this age of video, the perception among leaders is that footage could be misused against law enforcement.”
That public perception is the focus of the next phase of Crow’s research.
“We’ve already begun surveying to determine what the public’s perception of BWCs are,” Crow said. “The public’s view of BWCs is unfolding right now. We’re acting with expediency to fill the hole in research and capture the perception as it happens.”
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.