Why some police departments are dropping their body camera programs

Body cameras are praised as a key police accountability tool. Some departments say they’re too expensive to use.

There’s an ongoing conversation in the US about police violence against black men and women, and police body cameras — which are meant to increase accountability and help rebuild community trust — are often touted as part of the solution.

However, several police departments now say they are moving away from body cameras, arguing that the programs are too expensive to maintain.

A recent report from the Washington Post notes that a number of police departments, many of them small agencies employing 50 officers or fewer, have either dropped existing body camera programs or scrapped plans to launch new ones.

“The easy part is buying the body cameras and issuing them to the officers. They are not that expensive,” Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police, told the Post. “But storing all the data that they collect — that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them.”

As body camera programs have become increasingly popular in recent years, departments have moved to enact new programs. But the Post report notes that these costs were an unforeseen result of the cameras’ proliferation.

That issue, coupled with years of data and analysis presenting a complicated picture about the effectiveness of body cameras in changing officer behavior, and the passage of laws limiting the availability of footage, shows how implementing body cameras in a way that encourages police transparency and accountability has been far more complicated than initially thought.

Body cameras have been touted as a way to increase police accountability. Now some departments are moving away from them.

The concept of requiring police officers to wear body cameras that document their actions has become more popular as videos showing police shootings and officers using excessive force against black and brown men and women have gone viral on social media, and movements like Black Lives Matter have called attention to significant racial disparities in police use of force.

While many of the videos that spread online were taken by bystanders, police body cameras were promoted as a way to increase police accountability and transparency. It was a popular concept — according to a May 2015 YouGov poll, 88 percent of Americans polled supported the idea of police officers wearing body cameras.

This support, coupled with directives from the Obama administration and federal grant programs from the Department of Justice, further encouraged police departments to announce pilot programs. By 2016, surveys of police agencies found that some 95 percent of departments in major cities had either already launched body camera programs or planned to do so in the future.

But while many departments were able to get cameras relatively easily due to grant funding, the Post notes that the cameras also created other costs due to the laws requiring specific timelines for storing footage and the costs of preparing camera video for trials. These costs have proven particularly expensive for small and medium departments, often adding thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars in expenses to departments with limited funds.

In Wahoo, Nebraska, for example, the police department dropped its body camera program last November after a video storage law increased costs for the five-person police force by $15,000. The fact that these types of departments are struggling is significant — the Washington Post’s Fatal Force database notes that smaller police departments have more frequent instances of officer-involved shootings.

But larger police departments have also run into problems. In Arlington, Virginia, a body camera pilot program suggested that the agency would need to spend $300,000 a year to maintain its camera program. The Post notes that the camera program was quickly scrapped.

While costs of camera maintenance and video storage were often mentioned as the reason departments were moving to drop body camera programs, there are other issues as well. Departments added that there were significant privacy concerns involved when it comes to recording civilians. In recent years, activists have expressed concern that cameras could be used to surveil them.

There’s also the fact that reports on the effectiveness of body cameras have been mixed. A 2015 study on body cameras’ effects on officer use of force found that officers with cameras received fewer citizen complaints and were less likely to use force when compared to officers without cameras. But a 2017 study of more than 2,000 Metropolitan Police officers in Washington, DC, found that body cameras did not have a significant effect on officer behavior or use of force.

“Body-worn cameras may have great utility in specific policing scenarios,” a team of researchers involved in the 2017 DC study wrote. “But we cannot conclude from this experiment that they can be expected to produce large, department-wide improvements in outcomes.” So far, the studies that have been conducted suggest that body cameras’ effectiveness is heavily dependent on the policies and practices of the department they are being introduced in.

These complications have been further compounded by other problems, namely struggles to actually access videos of officer misconduct. In many cities, videos are subject to a range of laws that make it hard for members of the general public to see footage. And even when body camera footage is released to the public, limits on the camera technology — body cameras, for example, are rarely on 24/7 and often have to be “activated” by an officer before they record — can make it difficult to get a full picture of a situation if an officer uses the device incorrectly.

In 2017, Vox’s German Lopez noted that even in cases where video is released, the footage can still be interpreted in a number of different ways based on the audience. “The video can be ambiguous,” Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an expert on body cameras at the Brennan Center for Justice, told Lopez. “It’s hard to interpret sometimes. It’s shaky. Often, the body cameras aren’t turned on at the right time … so they may not capture all of a particular incident.”

These problems don’t mean that body cameras are worthless; police body camera footage has played a major role in capturing instances of police misconduct that don’t involve force. Footage can also help officers learn from previous encounters. It is likely that cameras, if treated as a first step toward broader reforms and implemented with laws that support accountability and transparency, do matter.

But the problems suggest that body cameras alone won’t be able to change policing. Instead, departments eager to mend community relations will need to involve communities of color in police reform efforts. And those issues will require policies that go beyond introducing body cameras.