Understanding the Adoption and Implementation of Body-Worn Cameras among U.S. Local Police Departments

By Sunyoung Pyo (Korean National Police University)

Police use of deadly force against racial minority residents is a major concern of U.S. policing. The several high-profile police-involved deaths of racial minority residents, such as the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in New York City, along with the acquittal of police officers involved in those incidents, led to minority residents’ riots and looting in protest of police brutality. These incidents and the resulting public outcry brought major national debate on officers’ discriminatory treatment toward Black people and pressured the governments to devise a way to control officers’ discretionary decision to use of deadly force.

In response to these incidents, body-worn cameras (BWCs) emegered as a policy innovation to mitigate conflict between the police and the community (Braga et al. 2017; Gaub et al. 2016). BWCs are expected to have a civilizing effect on police officers and the public, which would reduce the likelihood of aggression during their encounters (Ariel et al. 2015; Munger and Harris 1989). In addition, advocates of BWCs anticipate that BWC recordings would provide more accurate descriptions of officers’ uses of deadly force during police-public encounters. Improved understanding of these circumstances is especially valuable when evaluating whether officers’ decisions to use deadly force can be justified (Rickman 2018). The federal initiative to support BWC implementation has further encouraged law enforcement agencies’ interest in BWCs. After President Obama announced his commitment to build trust between law enforcement agencies and communities in May 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) awarded grants of about $20 million to 73 local agencies to support BWC deployment (DOJ 2015). Following this federal initiative, many local law enforcement agencies considered adopting BWCs, although a few early innovative local police departments had adopted them before 2014.

Despite the national interest in BWCs following high-profile incidents of police-involved deaths, heterogeneity exists in different police departments’ timing of BWC implementations. For example, while the Phoenix Police Department began using BWCs in April 2013, the Boston Police Department began deploying them early in 2018. The New York City Police Department (NYPD) is another example of late BWC implementation. The NYPD began deploying BWCs in earnest in April 2017 because their original plan for BWC implementation was delayed due to a lawsuit, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights, that argued that the NYPD’s departmental BWC policy regarding when to turn on the BWCs and how long the department keeps the BWC footage was flawed (Southall 2017; Long 2017).

What causes some police departments to be more innovative in implementing BWCs than others? I explored this question in my article for UAR by examining 139 U.S. police departments sampled from across the U.S. I considered diverse set of explanatory factors based on the innovation framework of Wejnert (2002). However, given the background of the diffusion of BWCs in the U.S., this study specifically examines whether the societal needs to address the issue of police use of force against minority residents are associated with the police departments’ decisions to use BWCs. The current study seeks to improve our understanding of whether police departments are responsive agencies to their communities’ needs, as is often hypothesized for other governmental agencies.

The results demonstrate that the societal needs to address the issue of police use of deadly force against minority residents is a critical factor for explaining BWC implementation, while external support from the municipal leader or a federal agency are also the factors helping police departments to implement BWCs. The summaries of the main findings are as follows:

  • First, the police departments that experienced more frequent police-involved deaths of minority residents and more frequent protests of police brutality against minority residents within their jurisdictions are more likely to implement BWCs. These findings may suggest that police departments are responsive agencies to local concerns on policing issues, similarly to how other local governments demonstrate responsiveness toward issues of environmental protection and economic development (Feiock and Cable 1992; Feiock and West 1993; Sharp, Daley, and Lynch 2011).
  • Second, among several organizational and environmental characteristics considered, two factors indicating the recipients of federal funding for BWCs and the police departments that are governed by a council-manager form of government (in contrast to those governed by a mayor-council-form of government) are more likely to implement BWCs.
  • Third, I additionally ran the model stratified by form of government, and the result from this model showed that the frequency of police-involved deaths of minority residents and the frequency of the protests of police brutality are positively and significantly associated with BWC implementation only in mayor-council municipalities. This positive conditional effect of a mayor-council form of government, combined with the findings of the direct negative association of a mayor-council form of government with BWC implementation may reveal different incentives of political officials to support BWCs according to their communities’ circumstances. Political officials in mayoral municipalities may not see the direct incentive for implementing BWCs, but once they perceive the strong community need to address the issue of police brutality against minority residents, they may become proactive in accepting BWCs. This proactivity can enable them to claim credit for their effort to support a visible policy solution that can address their communities’ concerns (Kwon, Berry, and Feiock 2009).

This study provides important policy implications which are helpful to facilitate BWC implementation among local police departments. Police departments that had not implemented BWCs until recently might not have found a sufficiently strong reason to implement BWCs in the face of the implementation costs and their perceived concern regarding BWCs’ invasion of privacy. Federal support for BWCs is obviously an important resource that makes it easier for police departments to decide to implement BWCs. This implies that the continuation or expansion of current federal support can further catalyze the widespread usage of BWCs. In addition, the visible effort of community members to emphasize the necessity of BWC implementation may help elected municipal leaders to support BWCs, especially in municipalities that experience relatively frequent police-involved deaths of racial minority residents. A community forum led by an advocacy group, or continuous media interest in BWCs, may help elected municipal leaders find reasons to support BWCs.


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Read the UAR article here.

Photo by AJ Colores on Unsplash

Author Biography

Sunyoung Pyo received a PhD degree from the Department of Public Administration and Policy of University at Albany and is currently police senior inspector of Korean police force holding a position of an instructor at the Korean National Police University. Her research specializes in criminal justice policies and policing, with a focus on issues of police accountability and transparency, and racial and gender representation in the police force.