Activation of Body-Worn Cameras: Variation by Officer, Over Time, and by Policing Activity

Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
Activation of Body-Worn
Cameras: Variation
by Officer, Over Time,
and by Policing Activity
Daniel S. Lawrence
, David McClure
, Aili Malm
, Mathew Lynch
and Nancy La Vigne
This study assessed the early deployment of the Anaheim Police Department’s body-worn camera
(BWC) program in 2015 by examining camera activations across officers, trends in activations over
time, and how different police–community contacts predict BWC activations. These were assessed
with correlational analyses among 40 BWC-equipped officers in the first 6 months of their use.
Activation of the BWCs among officers varied widely, with 6-month average activations ranging
from 0% to 72%. Average activation rates increased over time from 3% to 54%. Officers dis-
proportionately activated their cameras for events related to crimes; for example, activation rates
for other categories were significantly lower compared to violent crimes, with odds ratios ranging
from 0.148 to 0.663. The article concludes with a discussion on how the failure to activate a BWC
limits the potential benefits of the technology. While officers have considerable discretion on when
to activate their BWCs, law enforcement agencies must not only train and deploy BWCs among
their officers but also audit and supervise individual use to ensure successful BWC programs.
police, body-worn cameras, BWC, activation
Police departments’ use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) has received considerable attention in recent
years. Despite being a relatively new tool for the police, there has been a steady increase in the use of
BWCs, prompted in large part by police shootings of community members and public demand for
transparency, as well as sizable federal investment in grants to local police agencies. BWCs are one of
the fastest technologies adopted by departments in recent decades, and as a result, the field is still
identifying how to best implement this tool and how it impacts officer activity and behavior in the field.
Urban Institute, Washington, DC, USA
Police Executive Research Forum, Washington, DC, USA
California State University, Long Beach, Long Beach, CA, USA
New York City Department of Probation, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Daniel S. Lawrence, Urban Institute, 500 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Washington, DC 20024, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(3) 339-355
ª2019 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819846228
Agencies are in the midst of developing new policies and procedures to ensure successful BWC
programs. For example, BWCs do not record on a continual basis, both because the storage space
required to house that volume of footage would be prohibitive and because officers require a degree
of privacy during their shifts. While many agencies have policies prescribing when officers should
start recording, officers still have wide discretion on when to record, may forget to turn the camera
on, or simply choose not to activate their cameras under certain circumstances. While perhaps
unintentional, many of these events are violations of policy, albeit of minor consequence given
there are typically no official consequences for violators. As a result, questions are raised about what
type of community encounters officers are more likely to activate their cameras and how policies
and practices can be changed to ensure that BWCs are activated as required.
The failure to activate a BWC severely limits the potential benefits of the technology. If imple-
mented and used as designed, BWCs could affect citizen behav iors (i.e., the civilizing effect),
improve case processing and complaint investigations (i.e., evidentiary value), and influence officer
behaviors that may result in less use of force and citizen complaints (White, 2014). The purpose of
this article is to examine variations in officers’ BWC activation compliance by examining data from
Anaheim, CA. Specifically, the current study examines the frequency of and reason for officer BWC
activations, the change in the number of BWC activations over time, and how different police–
community contacts are associated with such activations. Results are discussed in detail, and policy
recommendations are offered to ensure that current and future law enforcement agencies can better
address some of the challenges identified as part of this research.
Background and Problem Statement
Prior to the many rigorous studies currently available, BWCs were originally thought to improve
interactions between officers and community members by reducing an officer’s offensive language
(Floyd, 2013), increasing officer compliance with provisions governing search and seizures (Harris,
2010), and increasing other displays of police professionalism (White, 2014). As a result of these
improved practices and behaviors, it was hypothesized that community complaints toward officers
and officers’ levels of use of force would reduce. Early studies examining the relations BWCs had on
complaints and use of force events found remarkable changes. In one of the earliest U.S. studies,
Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland (2015) found that complaints in Rialto, CA, were reduced by 88%and
use of force incidents by 60%during shifts where officers were wearing a BWC. Jennings, Lynch,
and Fridell’s (2015) randomized controlled trial (RCT) of Orlando, FL, police officers found that use
of force (referred to as response to resistance) incidents were 53.4%lower among BWC-wearing
officers, and their external complaints were 65.4%lower compared to the control officers. Gros-
smith et al. (2015) found lower rates of complaints among officers with BWCs within 6 of 10
boroughs in the greater metropolitan area in London. These differences were found nonsignificant
once multivariate analyses were conducted to rule out other explanatory factors; however, more in-
depth analyses found that officers without a BWC were 2.55 times more likely to receive an
oppressive behavior complaint, while no difference was found for incivility complaints (Grossmith
et al., 2015).
While the results from these early studies certainly brought BWCs to the forefront of the media
and communities’ attention for police reform, the results of the effects of BWCs on complaints and
use of force events from more recent and methodologically rigorous studies are mixed. An RCT with
416 officers from the Las Vegas, NV, Police Department found a 12.5%reduction of use of force
incidents in favor of officers with BWCs and found significant differences in favor of BWCs on the
share of officers with at least one complaint between the treatment and control groups over the
preintervention and intervention periods (Braga, Coldren, Sousa, Rodriguez, & Alper, 2017). The
Orlando Police Department saw an 8.4%reduction among BWC-equipped officers compared to a
340 Criminal Justice Review 44(3)

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