Just How Common Are Body Cameras in Police Departments?

There's not much in the way of hard numbers, but a solid guess based on surveys would be that a little more than half of all law enforcement agencies in the U.S. use body-worn cameras in some capacity.

by / June 28, 2019
Data up to 2016 from surveys, 2017 and 2018 are estimates assuming a continuing rate of increase. Center for Digital Government

Editor's note: This is the second part in a series about body cameras in the U.S. To follow along with the series, go here.

Sales of body cameras aren't terribly difficult to track. But arriving at a solid estimate of how many law enforcement agencies are using the technology is, as it happens, quite a bit more difficult.

That’s because, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S. And smaller ones tend to behave a little differently than larger ones. And sheriff’s offices behave differently than local cops.

It’s the kind of question that’s best suited to surveys, and there have been just a handful of nationally representative surveys conducted on body camera adoption in the past several years. We found two organizations with three such surveys that would work for the purposes of this article — the Police Executive Research Forum and the BJS. Another survey from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs Association, asked its questions in a different way and therefore the results couldn’t be compared.

The three resulting numbers were for 2013, 2015 and 2016, which leaves question marks for more recent years. But they combine to paint a consistent portrait of steady growth among police in the U.S. adopting body camera programs — from a quarter of agencies using them in 2013 to 45 percent in 2016, an increase of around 1,200 agencies per year.

If that trend continued into 2017 and 2018 — by no means an established supposition, since most technology markets tend to reach saturation at some point and, in fact, body camera purchasing activity took a dip in 2017 — then that would mean that about 10,500 agencies, or 58 percent of all law enforcement departments in the U.S., used body cameras by the end of 2018.

The numbers in the chart above were calculated by applying the percentages in the survey results to the total number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. These are rough guesses based on surveys from two different entities, so take it with a grain of salt.

It should also be noted that the number of agencies that have adopted body cameras does not necessarily equate to the number of police using body cameras, or the number of people who live in communities where police use body cameras. There are far more small towns in the U.S. than there are large or even medium-sized cities, so it follows logically that the number of small police agencies is greater than the number of large ones.

When it studied body cameras, the BJS found that for the most part, larger agencies were more likely to have body cameras than smaller ones. 

In the coming days, we will examine where the national momentum toward body cameras came from, and whether they are fulfilling the expectations that propelled them to such popularity in the first place.

Ben Miller Associate Editor of GT Data and Business

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.

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