Reimagining Guardians and Guardianship With the Advent of Body Worn Cameras

Published date01 March 2019
Date01 March 2019
AuthorJennifer D. Wood,Elizabeth R. Groff
Subject MatterArticles
Reimagining Guardians
and Guardianship With
the Advent of Body
Worn Cameras
Jennifer D. Wood
and Elizabeth R. Groff
The implementation of body worn cameras (BWCs) is occurring at a rapid rate and with relatively
little information about their potential impacts on both the police and the citizens they serve. The
core assumption underlying this widespread adoption is that BWCs will increase self-awareness
among police officers as well as citizens, which will in turn reduce negative outcomes and improve
police–citizen relations. At the same time, there is a broader movement to emphasize the function
of police officers as guardians rather than warriors. This research draws from a mixed method
evaluation of a pilot implementation of BWCs in Philadelphia, PA. We draw from focus groups and
pre–post survey results to make the case for a wider conceptual frame in understanding the
potential for BWCs to transform policing. Specifically, we argue that cameras can provide a tool for
police officers to use in emphasizing their role as guardians. We provide evidence from the eva-
luation to support this view.
body worn cameras, guardianship, guardians, police, technology
The implementation of body worn cameras (BWCs) continues apace as part of a national effort to
address a policing crisis in America. At the heart of this crisis is a concern about the fragile state of
police–community relations, specifically with communities of color. A series of high-profile inci-
dents of fatal police shootings across the United States catapulted an agenda, led by the previous
Obama Administration, to enhance public perceptions of police legitimacy (see Lum, Koper,
Merola, Sherer, & Reioux, 2015). The core assumption underlying the adoption of the cameras is
that these new technologies will generate more “self-awareness” (Farrar & Ariel, 2013; The Pre-
sident’s Task Force on 21st-Century Policing (“Task Force”), 2015, p. 32) among both officers and
Department of Criminal Justice, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer D. Wood, Department of Criminal Justice, Temple University, 548 Gladfelter Hall, 1115 Polett Walk, Philadelphia,
PA 19122, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2019, Vol. 44(1) 60-75
ª2018 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734016818814895
citizens, thereby reducing negative outcomes including excessive use of force and citizen complaints
(Lum et al., 2016).
This development is thus driven by normative concerns about public trust and confidence in the
police. Moreover, it is situated within a larger discourse about the place of the police in American
society. Influential police leaders and policy makers have been arguing that the police must achieve
a cultural shift away from being “warriors” to “guardians” (Alexander, 2016; Rahr & Rice, 2015).
Rahr and Rice (2015) argue that “[d]espite two decades of aspiring to effective community policing,
American law enforcement seems to have drifted off the course of building close community ties
toward creating a safe distance from community members ...” (p. 2). Relatedly, the President’s
Task Force (2015) on 21st-Century Policing states that “[t]he vision of policing in the 21st century
should be that of officers as guardians of human and constitutional rights” (p. 45).
This article was inspired by what we learned from a pilot study that examined the implementation
of BWCs in one police district in Philadelphia, PA. The results that were most interesting to us
revealed insights into the potential to reimagine guardians and related conceptions of guardianship
with the advent of BWCs. We were particularly interested in officers’ comments that were sugges-
tive of the potential for the cameras to change how they perform their roles and accumulate
knowledge about places. Due to the parameters of the small study, we treat their experiences and
insights as provoking a broader understanding of guardian and guardianship opportunities both now
and into the future with the advent of BWCs.
This broader understanding incorpora tes the existing normative concern with imp roving the
quality of police encounters and ultimately enhancing police legitimacy. We move beyond this
concern, however, to suggest that BWCs have instrumental value to effective community policing
strategies due to their potential to enable crime prevention and the implementation of problem-
oriented approaches. In particular, we draw from routine activities theory to articulate a more robust
conception of police as “capable guardians.” Within this conception, officers make optimal use of
the cameras to know and understand the spaces and places that they manage and to enlist other
parties in reducing criminogenic opportunities. By integrating these normative and instrumental
dimensions of guardians and guardianship, we further suggest that the cameras provide a contem-
porary tool to achieve the original Peelian vision of a modern police that coupled a normative focus
on respectful and consensual police–community relations with an instrumental focus on crime
prevention. This article begins by describing a theoretical context for examining BWCs that ties
together these normative and instrumental concerns. In that theoretical context, this article seeks to
make the case for reimagining guardians and guardianship by drawing from pilot study findings
from focus groups and a survey of police officers regarding their attitudes toward BWCs and how
those attitudes changed after wearing them. This article concludes by highlighting some implications
of this reimagining for research, policy, and practice.
Theoretical Context
At the heart of the President’s Task Force Report on 21st-Century Policing is a call for a shift in
ethos away from “warriors” to a conception of “guardians.” The very first recommendation in this
report begins with the proposition that “[l]aw enforcement culture should embrace a guardian
mindset to build public trust and legitimacy” (Task Force, 2015, p. 11). This proposition is drawn
from Rahr and Rice who suggest we have “drifted away” from a vision of society depicted in Plato’s
(1941) Republic, where a class of “guardians”—what we now refer to as police—served to maintain
the social order and protect citizens. Guardianship was not just a vocation, but rather an enlightened
function made possible through education—of the Socratic form—that engages with questions of
virtue, ethics, and justice. Building on this argument, Cedric Alexander, in his recent book titled The
New Guardians (2016) states:
Wood and Groff 61

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