A study on the effects of body-worn cameras shows a significant reduction in complaints of police misconduct and use of force, as well as some cost savings.
The study, conducted by Virginia-based CNA Corporation, in cooperation with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) and the University of Las Vegas' Center for Crime and Justice Policy, found a 37 percent reduction in the number of officers involved in use-of-force incidents and a 30 percent decrease in the number of officers with at least one complaint filed against them. Among the control group, officers not equipped with a camera, use-of-force increased 4 percent.
Researchers assigned 400 LVMPD officers body cams, while another 400 served as a control group.
In a new twist on this type of study, the Las Vegas survey also found that body-worn cameras can generate considerable cost savings for police by simplifying the complaint resolution process.
Capt. Daniel Zehnder, Communications Bureau commander for LVMPD, said the 2014 study deserves attention because of the cost savings. The department saved between $828 and $1,097 per user or approximately $4,000 per user, per year when misconduct complaints and investigations were considered.
“The cost-benefit analysis was a bit limited,” he said. “I think there could be more savings.”
For example, he said, footage might help officers later write better reports.
The positive results of the Las Vegas pilot contrasted with several other studies from police departments in Washington, D.C. (2017), Phoenix (2014), and Edmonton, Canada (2011-2014) that found body cameras did not affect police misconduct.
A randomized, controlled trial at the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., showed no statistically significant effect on officer uses of force or civilian complaints this past fall. With more than 2,200 officers involved, this study is one of the largest and more rigorous on this issue to date. This study was rolled out in multiple patrol districts during the course of 18 months, although the findings are based only on the first seven months of camera implementation.
The fact that the body-worn cameras did not affect behavior may be the result of a department that is already at a high level (of policing) and does not have much room for improvement, explained Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former police officer.
In addition to differences in police departments and communities, he said study design may influence the outcome.
The LVMPD decided to purchase and use body-worn cameras because it had run into issues with officer-involved shootings and a use-of-force incident that ended in the death of the subject. According to Zehnder, because of these adverse events between 2010 and 2012, the department turned to the U.S. Department of Justice to work with that agency to solve the problem. The DOJ recommended the police force consider using the technology and asked the department to participate in a study to determine effectiveness.
The department sought community input to policies that govern the technology. He said the body cameras have helped the department become more transparent and embrace public accountability when it comes to use of force. He said the police chief now stands up in front of the press and plays back the video from a police incident.
“We also post them immediately to our YouTube.com channel,” he said.
Researchers at UNLV said that when used well, the technology can enhance the department's ability to be accountable for their behavior.
"Body-worn cameras demonstrate a police agency’s commitment to transparency and accountability," said study co-author William Sousa, director of UNLV's Center for Crime and Justice Policy. "The results of this study suggest that the cameras also have benefits in terms of reductions in police use of force and complaints of officer misconduct."
The National Institute of Justice provided a $107,000 grant for the researchers conducting the study.
Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.