issues related to police behavior and problematic police–citizen int eractions (Ray et al., 2017).
Consequently, BWCs may also be a way to respond to legitimacy and transparency issues (White
& Malm, 2020). In the United States, for example, the Obama administration introduced in 2015 a
grant program to help police departments acquire BWCs. This program was in response to several
police interventions that resulted in the death of unarmed citizens. Footage is expected to help
resolve controversial cases by providing a “neutral” point of view, that is, a testimony from some-
thing not involved in the intervention.
In theory, BWCs have the capacity to record all the time. However, due to privacy, legal, and
practical concerns, cameras must be activated by officers in most jurisdictions. Early comments
have raised concerns that officers would not activate their cameras in situations where there was a
possibility that an intervention would not “look good” or when a situation might involve unneces-
sary or excessive use of force—posing a clear threat to transparency (Lin, 2016; Newell &
Greidanus, 2018). Also, while video footage is expected to be most useful in stressful situations,
officers may be less likely to think of activating their BWC under stress. In response to such
concerns, detailed policies have been developed to help officers determine when and where to
activate and/or deactivate their BWCs. Despite this, observers have suggested that officers have
too much discretion over camera activation (Lin, 2016), which could lead to selective recording.
Although a couple of studies have investigated activation trends, the relation between individual
factors (e.g., officers’ policing experience, number of arrests in previous weeks) and activation
(Lawrence et al., 2019) or the impact of departmental policies (i.e., voluntary vs. mandatory assign-
ment; Roy, 2014), there is still an important g ap of knowledge on BWC activation, especial ly
regarding situational factors (e.g., types of crimes, proactive vs. reactive calls).
In order to contribute to a better understanding of BWCs usage, this article aims to study
compliance with a BWC activation policy by (1) investigating activation trends over a 10-month
pilot where a strict written policy was adopted and (2) analyzing the relationship between situational
and individual factors and camera activation. Our work is divided as follows. First, we present the
current state of knowledge about BWCs and their impacts on police–citizen interactions. The
literature review allows us to shed light on the scarcity of studies about BWCs activation and
the effect of discretion on policy compliance. Second, we present our methodology, which relies
on data collected during a pilot led by the Montreal Police Service (MPS) from 2016 to 2017. Third,
we present our results. Fourth, we discuss our results and suggest theoretical frameworks that could
help better understand the role of discretion on BWC activation.
The Impacts of BWCs
Empirical evidence about the use of BWCs has accumulated quickly over the last decade, and three
waves of literature reviews can already be distinguished. Articles in the first wave set out guidelines
for future use and research (Lum et al., 2015; White, 2014), while those in the second can be seen as
progress reports (Cubitt et al., 2017; Maskaly et al., 2017). Although several questions still need to
be addressed, the third wave sits on a larger set of empirical results. The most recent review by Lum
et al. (2019; see also Lum et al., 2020) examined 70 empirical studies on several types of expected
impacts of BWCs related to officers’ and citizens’ behaviors, community attitudes, criminal inves-
tigations, and police organizations. Despite some encouraging results, it appears that “BWCs have
not produced dramatic changes in police behavior, for better or worse” (p. 18). As outlined by Ariel
et al. (2017), BWCs are expected to have a deterrent effect on both police officers and citizen, who
should modify their behavior in response to heightened risks of being caught (on camera).
The deterrent effect of BWCs has clearly been given the most attention: Police organizations
introduced cameras primarily because they expected an effect on officers’ interventions, and
research studies were aimed at documenting that effect. Early studies supported the idea that BWCs
Criminal Justice Review 47(1)