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Research Says Body Cams Are Good Public Safety Investment

A new study suggests the potential benefits of police body cameras — including reduced use of force — outweighs the costs of the technology. More research about body cams, however, is strongly recommended.

Police Body Camera
Shutterstock/VDB Photos
New research shows that investing in police body cameras has a benefit-to-cost ratio of 5 to 1, which is the equivalent of turning "a $1 bill into a $5 bill."

The study, which comes from the University of Chicago Crime Lab and the Council on Criminal Justice, reviews and builds upon multiple recent studies on body cams, finding that the tech can reduce use of force by about 10 percent and complaints against police by 17 percent. While these potential benefits must be interpreted with caution due to data limitations, the study suggests body cams "may affect a number of policing outcomes that are important from a social welfare perspective."

During the 2010s, body cams became a "fact of life" for law enforcement, with purchases of the tech reaching a peak in 2016. But as a recent NPR article indicates, local police departments may not use body cams due to budget concerns, as well as uncertainty about the technology's effectiveness. Jens Ludwig, who leads the Crime Lab, believes this latest research has an important message for agencies that are reluctant to try body cams due to cost.

“If you are a local government looking at adopting the cost, from your narrow green eyeshade bottom line, the technology probably pays for itself,” Ludwig told NPR. “And the benefits to the public are a huge win and easily outweigh the cost.”

At the same time, body cams should be thought of as just part of a larger effort to fix problems surrounding U.S. police. It will take body cams as well as other ideas, such as data systems that more comprehensively document both positive and negative police behavior, to address issues like excessive use of force and community-police relationships.

"Body-worn cameras are a useful part of the response but not a solution by themselves," Ludwig added. "Body-worn cameras are not going to solve the problem of the enormous gap we see in police use of force in the U.S. against Black versus white Americans.”

The aforementioned study, which Ludwig co-authored, also mentions that artificial intelligence can "change and expand the ability of departments to process and monitor BWC [body-worn camera] video footage," which could lead to new insights into "police-civilian interactions."

"This is, in short, a policing reform technology that is worth continued monitoring and evaluation," the study concluded.