Chapter 3:
Criminal Justice

Body-Worn Cameras Can Promote Police Accountability

New technology allows every police officer to wear a small camera that makes digital video recordings of citizen interactions.[79] In Ferguson, Missouri, where conflicting accounts of the August 9 shooting of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown led to rioting and worldwide news, the police had received a stock of such cameras, but they had not yet deployed when Brown was shot.[80] If body worn cameras had been rolling, they might have provided a key record of the fateful interaction—or even, by their presence, encouraged more cautious behavior and prevented the incident from occurring at all. In the wake of Brown’s shooting and a string of other deaths of unarmed black men, a number of civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund have urged wider use of the cameras.[81] They have also been proposed as a remedy to New York City’s stop and frisk practices; mayor de Blasio called for the cameras’ use as part of his campaign,[82] and the city will soon begin testing use of the cameras.[83]

According to a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, as of September 2013, one out of out of every four police departments it surveyed said that they had “begun to equip their officers with body-worn cameras on at least a trial basis.”[84] More recently, a researcher working for the group reported that Los Angeles, London, and a number of other large cities are piloting the cameras.[85] There are many different types of body-worn cameras available, including some that mount to vests or headgear. They may cost as much as $1,000 each, or as little as a few hundred dollars, depending on the model.[86]

The impact of body-worn cameras has not yet been systematically studied.[87] “The technology is ahead of the policy at this point,” noted James Stewart, director of public safety and security for CNA Analysis and Solutions.[88] “[N]obody has done a real, large-scale research study on the effect of cameras on whether it reduces injuries, complaints, and whether the people wearing them feel comfortable wearing them.”

But anecdotal evidence is generally positive, suggesting that the cameras can help de-escalate heated situations.[89] For example, a small police department in Rialto, California equipped half of its 54 uniformed officers with cameras, after which complains against police dropped 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months.[90] And in Oakland, California, police have deployed around 500 cameras (one of the largest programs in the nation).[91] “It’s enormously helpful,” reflected Oakland Police Interim Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa. “When you’re able to go to the video and see what’s occurred . . . it saves so much investigative time, all the way around as to whether the misconduct took place or not.”[92]

The idea of body-worn cameras is even spreading at the federal level. In March, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson met with immigrant rights activist groups to discuss the possibility of border patrol agents wearing cameras.[93] The Obama Administration is hoping that the recordings will provide insight into complaints of excessive force on the border.

Civil liberties groups generally support the cameras, but urge some caution. “For the ACLU, the challenge of on-officer cameras is the tension between their potential to invade privacy and their strong benefit in promoting police accountability,” writes Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union.[94] “Overall, we think they can be a win-win—but only if they are deployed within a framework of strong policies.” Key issues include whether the footage will become a public record,[95] how the system tracks officer decisions to turn the cameras off or delete footage, and whether citizens can veto recordings in private settings such as their homes.

Body-worn cameras are poised to help boost accountability for law enforcement and citizens.

Body-worn cameras are poised to help boost accountability for law enforcement and citizens. And unlike many new police technologies, the cameras share preliminary support from both law enforcement and social justice groups. The cameras may be particularly beneficial for Black and Latino men, who are likelier to shoulder the harms of any police misconduct due to their greater involvement with the criminal justice system. But successful implementation of the cameras will require careful policies that respect and protect both the police and the public.

[79] David Robinson, Police Departments Quickly Adopting “Body-Worn Cameras” That Put Citizen Encounters On Video, Equal Future (Sep. 25, 2013),

[80] Christopher Mims, What Happens When Police Officers Wear Body Cameras, Wall St. J. (Aug. 18, 2014),

[81] Letter from Sherrilyn Ifill, President, NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, to Eric Holder (Aug. 14, 2014), (“Consistent with its financial and practical influence over state and local law enforcement agencies, the DOJ should promote the use of body-worn video cameras. Properly obtained video evidence produces an objective account of interactions between police and citizens. This improves the accuracy of investigations into police brutality and misconduct, contextualizes citizen encounters with the police, provides training opportunities to officers about appropriate police practices, and serves as an independent check on police conduct.”).

[82] Azi Paybarah, City maintains not-quite-yet position on NYPD, Capital (Aug. 6, 2014), cameras

[83] J. David Goodman, New York Police Officers to Start Using Body Cameras in a Pilot Program, N.Y. Times (Sep. 4, 2014),

[84] Robinson supra note 79.

[85] Paybarah supra note 82.

[86] Marc Santora, Order That Police Wear Cameras Stirs Unexpected Reactions, N.Y. Times (Aug. 13, 2013),

[87] Id.

[88] Sarah Lai Stirland, High-Tech NYPD Is Body Camera Shy, As Departments Across Country Embrace Them, TechPresident (Sep. 23, 2013),

[89] Police Executive Research Forum, Police Leaders Explore Growing Use of Body Cameras At PERF Town Hall Meeting in Philadelphia (Sep. 2013),

[90] Santora, supra note 86.

[91] Stirland, supra note 88.

[92] Id.

[93] EFE, U.S. Mulls Over Putting Cameras On Border Patrol Agents, Fox News Latino (Mar. 26, 2014),

[94]Jay Stanley, Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win For All, ACLU (Oct. 2013),

[95] Sara Libby, Even When Police Do Wear Cameras, Don’t Count on Seeing the Footage, City Lab (Aug 18., 2014),