Public Attitudes About Body-Worn Cameras in Police Work: A National Study of the Sources of Their Contextual Variability

Published date01 September 2019
DOI10.1177/0734016819846241
Date01 September 2019
Subject MatterArticles
CJR846241 263..283 Article
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(3) 263-283
Public Attitudes About
ª 2019 Georgia State University
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Body-Worn Cameras
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DOI: 10.1177/0734016819846241
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in Police Work: A National
Study of the Sources of Their
Contextual Variability
Terance D. Miethe1, Joel D. Lieberman1, Miliaikeala S. J. Heen1,
and William H. Sousa1
Abstract
Based on a large national sample of U.S. adults, the current study examines the nature and correlates
of public support for body-worn cameras (BWCs) in various policing activities. Multivariate analyses
were performed to assess the direct and moderating effects of individuals’ socioeconomic char-
acteristics, general police attitudes and experiences, and specific beliefs about benefits of BWCs on
the level of public support for this technology. Strong public support for BWC usage is found across
different areas of police work. However, substantial contextual variability in this support is also
evident when the analysis focused on the conjunctive influences of individuals’ level of confidence in
social institutions, personal involvement in these institutions, and beliefs about police legitimacy and
their effectiveness. These results are discussed in terms of their implications for future research on
the sources of public receptivity, resistance, and change in these attitudes about BWCs over time.
Keywords
body cameras, public attitudes, contextual variability
Body-worn cameras (BWCs) have become a central feature of urban policing in contemporary
American society. Their acceptance and usage by police departments derives from the multiple
presumed benefits associated with this technology. For example, BWCs are widely regarded for
their potential in increasing transparency in police–citizen encounters, moderating citizen and police
behavior (e.g., reduces use of force, citizen complaints, lawsuits), building trust and police legiti-
macy, gathering visual evidence at crime scenes, and recording interviews with witnesses and
victims (Ariel, Farrar, & Sutherland, 2015; Crow, Snyder, Crichlow, & Smykla, 2017; Sousa,
1 Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV, USA
Corresponding Author:
Terance D. Miethe, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas,
NV 89154, USA.
Email: miethe@unlv.nevada.edu

264
Criminal Justice Review 44(3)
Miethe, & Sakiyama, 2015, 2017; White, 2014). However, concerns about BWCs’ usage also exist.
These concerns include privacy issues, the selective framing of these video accounts, the economic
costs associated with the technology, and the greater public reluctance to provide information to the
police (Miller, Tolliver, & Police Executive Research Forum, 2014; White, 2014).
Despite these negative concerns, public support for BWCs in police work is extremely strong.
More than 80% of adult respondents are consistently found in previous national surveys to support
BWCs’ usage by police (e.g., Moore, 2015; Pew, 2017; Sousa et al., 2017). County and citywide
surveys indicate a similar pattern of high support for BWCs and strong agreement about their
benefits to police–citizen relations (Crow et al., 2017; Lawrence, Peterson, & Thompson, 2018).
However, most of these surveys on public support for body cameras were conducted several years
ago (e.g., 2015, 2016), a time period in which BWCs were still an emergent technology. Given
greater visibility of BWCs in media accounts and more empirical research on their actual effects in
police practices, it is important to investigate whether public receptivity and resistance to this
technology has changed in more recent times (i.e., 2017–2018) and examine some of the contextual
factors that may impact public sentiments.
The objective of the current study is to explore the level and correlates of public support for BWC
usage across different areas of police work. Based on a large national online sample, it also evaluates
whether these public attitudes about BWCs are moderated by individuals’ confidence in social
institutions, personal involvement in these institutions, and beliefs about police legitimacy and
effectiveness. The results of these analyses are discussed in terms of their limitations and implica-
tions for future research.
Public Support for BWCs and Its Correlates
Over the last decade, a number of local and national surveys have been conducted to explore the
nature of public support for BWCs and the correlates of these attitudes. The results of this previous
research are summarized below.
Public Attitudes About BWCs in Police Work
Public attitudes about BWCs have been examined in several national and local survey projects.
These surveys have elicited general opinions about “requiring police to wear body cameras” (Moore,
2015; Sousa et al., 2015, 2017), “the use of body cameras by police” (Pew, 2017), and whether
“video cameras should be worn by all officers” (White, Todak, & Gaub, 2017). These surveys also
typically include questions about specific benefits of BWCs, including the level of public agreement
that this technology “increase(s) transparency,” “reduce(s) use of excessive force,” “improve(s)
police–citizen relations,” “increase(s) citizen’s trust,” “decrease(s) racial tension,” “make(s) officers
act more professionally,” and “increase(s) citizen’s cooperation with police” (Sousa et al., 2017;
White et al., 2017). Survey items that tap negative perceptions about this technology include
questions about their impact on “invading privacy” and “hurting police–community relations”
(Crow et al., 2017; White et al., 2017).
Regardless of its national or local scope, survey data indicate wide public support for BWCs in
police work. The level of support for BWCs in national surveys ranges from a low of 85% in May
2015 (Sousa et al., 2017) to a high of 93% in September 2016 (Pew, 2017). Among citywide surveys,
White, Todak, and Gaub (2017) found that 86% of a sample of Spokane residents supported BWCs
usage by their local police.
Public attitudes about the benefits of BWCs also reflect high support, but these opinions vary
across different domains of these benefits. For example, Sousa, Miethe, and Sakiyama (2017) found
substantial public agreement that BWCs “increase transparency” (91%) and “reduce use of

Miethe et al.
265
excessive force” (80%), but far lower support for the ideas that BWCs “improve police–citizen
relations” (66%), “increase citizen’s trust” (61%), and “decrease racial tension” (36%). Similarly,
Crow, Snyder, Crichlow, and Smykla (2017) found extremely high agreement among sample
respondents that BWCs will “assist in the collection of quality evidence” (88%) and “improve police
officer behavior” (87%), but less support for statements that BWCs will “improve residents’
behavior” (79%) and “improve views about police legitimacy” (78%). The results of multiwave
samples of Milwaukee resident (Lawrence et al., 2018) indicate that about 87% of sample respon-
dents in June 2018 believed that “BWCs hold Milwaukee police accountable for their behavior” and
84% of them also believed that this technology improved police relationships with community
members. In contrast, previous studies also reveal that less than one fourth of adult survey respon-
dents believe that BWCs violate the personal privacy of officer, crime victims, or witnesses (Crow
et al., 2017; Sousa et al., 2017).
Correlates of BWCs’ Attitudes
Coupled with the dominant finding of high public support, previous research has also identified
sources of variability in attitudes about BWCs. These correlates of support for BWCs examined in
previous studies include (1) individuals’ sociodemographic characteristics (e.g., gender, age, race/
ethnicity, education, income, residency, crime concerns) and (2) police-related experiences and
attitudes (e.g., police interactions, beliefs about police performance, procedural justice).
Among individuals’ sociodemographic attributes, public beliefs about BWCs’ usage and their
benefits are most strongly influenced by the respondent’s race and age, but the nature of these effects
vary across studies. For example, Sousa et al. (2017) found that Black residents had the greatest
support for BWCs, but they also had less positive views than other racial/ethnic groups about the
presumed benefits of this technology (e.g., increasing transparency, improving police–citizen rela-
tions, increasing citizen’s trust in police). Adults under 30 years old in this study also had more
positive views about BWCs’ benefits than older persons. Other sociodemographic characteristics
(e.g., gender, education, income, urban residency) have little impact on attitudes about BWC usage
and their perceived benefits.
Previous research has shown that public attitudes about BWCs and other emergent technology in
policing (e.g., aerial drones) are influenced by various police-related attitudes and experiences.
These police-related factors may also impact the nature of the sociodemographic correlates of public
support. For example, Crow et al. (2017) found that beliefs about police fairness and greater police
interactions were associated with more positive views about the benefits of BWCs. The effects of
individuals’ age and race on beliefs about BWC benefits were also found in this study to be primarily
indirect, transmitted through the impact of these demographic variables on individuals’ beliefs about
procedural fairness, crime concerns, and police performance.
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