Is There a Civilizing Effect on Citizens? Testing the Pre-Conditions for Body Worn Camera-Induced Behavior Change

AuthorMichael D. White,Quin Patterson
Date01 December 2021
Published date01 December 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Is There a Civilizing
Effect on Citizens?
Testing the Pre-
Conditions for Body
Worn Camera-Induced
Behavior Change
Quin Patterson
Michael D. White
The cause(s) of reduced use of force and complaints following police body-worn
camera (BWC) deployment remain unclear, though some argue that BWCs generate
a civilizing effect on citizen behavior. This potential effect rests on four pre-conditions:
(1) BWC presence and citizen awareness; (2) BWC activation; (3) Escalated citizen
behavior or the potential for escalation; (4) Citizen mental capacity for BWC aware-
ness. Prior research has not established the civilizing effect’s existence, or how often
these pre-conditions are met; this study aims to fill that gap. Data was collected during
systematic social observation (SSO) of 166encounters between citizens andofficers in
the Tempe, Arizona Police Department. The results tell a simple story. Two pre-
conditions (activation, citizen mental capacity) are consistently met; awareness and
escalated behavior are not. Overall, 1.2% of encounters saw all pre-conditions met.
The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications for research on BWCs.
body-worn cameras, civilizing effect, policing, police-citizen encounters
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, Phoenix, United States
Corresponding Author:
Quin Patterson, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Arizona State University, 411 North Central
Avenue, Suite 600, Phoenix, AZ 85004, United States.
Police Quarterly
!The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611121996716
2021, Vol. 24(4) 411 –437
412 Police Quarterly 24(4)
Police body-worn cameras (BWCs) have been adopted widely by police depart-
ments in the United States and abroad. Though interest in BWCs dates back
more than a decade (Miller & Toliver, 2014; White, 2014), diffusion of cameras
increased dramatically after a series of high profile police killings of minority
citizens, most notably Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.
Public outcry in the wake of those tragic incidents led former President Obama
to create a Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2015) to identify recommen-
dations for improving community trust and police accountability, and in its final
report (2015), the Task Force highlighted BWCs as a potential tool for accom-
plishing those goals. By 2016, nearly half of all law enforcement agencies in the
U.S. had purchased BWCs, including 80% of departments with 500 or more
sworn officers (Hyland, 2018).
There are several explanations for widespread adoption of BWCs, from sup-
port and pressure across a diverse range of sectors, including police leadership
organizations, civil rights groups, and citizens (White & Malm, 2020), to federal
funding support from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The U.S. DOJ has
awarded approximately $84 million in grants to more than 400 law enforcement
agencies, resulting in the deployment of thousands of BWCs across the country
(White, Flippin, & Malm, 2019). Findings from early research studies suggesting
cameras could produce notable reductions in use of force and citizen complaints
were one of the primary drivers of BWC adoption (Ariel et al., 2015; Jennings
et al., 2014; Katz et al., 2015). The reductions in use of force and citizen com-
plaints have been substantial and long-term in some departments, including
Rialto (CA; Farrar, 2013; Sutherland et al., 2017), Mesa (AZ; Mesa Police
Department, 2013), Las Vegas (NV; Braga et al., 2018), Orlando (FL;
Jennings et al., 2014), and Spokane (WA; White et al., 2018). Though the
research findings have become more mixed over time with regard to these out-
comes, the weight of the evidence is persuasive. For example, as of spring 2020,
26 studies have examined the impact of BWCs on citizen complaints, and 20 of
26 have documented substantial or statistically significant declines (Gaub et al.,
Why would police BWCs produce declines in use of force and complaints?
The answer to this question remains unclear though some argue that BWCs
generate a “civilizing effect” whereby the presence of the camera calms citizen
The BWC-induced civilizing effect could be driven by deterrence, as
people are more likely to behave properly if punishment will be swift, certain,
and severe; or by self-awareness, which theory states that individuals are more
likely to model their actions to fit social norms when they are observed. Based
on our experience as researchers and technical assistance providers, we argue the
existence of a BWC-induced civilizing effect on citizens rests of four critical pre-
conditions: (1) There is a BWC present and the citizen is aware of it; (2) The
officer activates the BWC (or at least, the citizen thinks it is recording); (3) The
citizen is escalated (angry, upset, potentially violent) or has the potential to
2Police Quarterly 0(0)

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