The “Civilizing” Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police-Civilian Interactions: Examining the Current Evidence, Potential Moderators, and Methodological Limitations

AuthorSamuel Choi,Nicholas D. Michalski,Jamie A. Snyder
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
The CivilizingEffect
of Body-Worn Cameras
on Police-Civilian Interactions:
Examining the Current Evidence,
Potential Moderators,
and Methodological Limitations
Samuel Choi
, Nicholas D. Michalski
and Jamie A. Snyder
Past studies on the civilizingeffect of body-worn cameras (BWC) on police and civilian behavior
have yielded mixed results. Some studies have shown a reduction in the use of force reports (e.g.,
Ariel et al., 2015) and civilian complaints (Hedberg et al., 2017) as a result of off‌icers utilizing BWCs.
However, other studies have found null effects (e.g., Yokum et al., 2017) or even the opposite f‌ind-
ings (i.e., increases in use of force reports; Ariel et al., 2016a). In the current review, we aim to
reconcile these inconsistencies by discussing psychological factors (i.e., police attitudes toward
BWCs, civilian attitudes toward the police, geographic psychology, off‌icer perceptions of self-legit-
imacy, and civilian stress) that may moderate the civilizing effect of BWCs. We also highlight the
methodological issues (i.e., contamination, unit of analysis, and low base rates) that have burdened
past studies involving f‌ield experiments and advocate for the use of multiple methods to strengthen
any existing weaknesses in the literature. Overall, we argue for a closer examination of individual-
level psychological factors and the use of multiple methods to help elucidate the ambiguities
concerning the civilizingeffect found in the BWC literature.
police culture/accountability, quantitative methods, crime/delinquency theory, crime prevention,
police processes
Department of Psychology, University of Wyoming; 1000 E University Ave, Laramie, USA
Department of Criminal Justice and Sociology, University of Wyoming, 1000 E University Ave, Laramie, USA
Corresponding Author:
Samuel Choi, Department of Psychology, University of Wyoming; 1000 E University Ave, Laramie, WY, 82071, USA.
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(1) 21-47
© 2022 Georgia State University
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/07340168221093549
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice spent $24 million to fund body-worn camera (BWC) pro-
grams in 73 law enforcement agencies (US Department of Justice, 2015). The government rollout
of BWCs was intended to improve police-community relations following demands for transparency
and accountability, sparked by the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri
(McDonald & Bachelder, 2017; Ripley & Williams, 2017). In addition to transparency and account-
ability, advocates of BWCs claimed that it would have a civilizing effecton police off‌icers and
civilians alike. Meaning, when placed under the watchful eye of a BWC, police off‌icers would
resort to less physical methods to get civilians to comply, while civilians would cooperate more
with the police. This civilizing effect could then reduce the number of use of force reports, reduce
civilian complaints, and potentially facilitate civilian cooperation with law enforcement (Ripley &
Williams, 2017; White, 2014).
Since the implementation of BWC programs, research on the civilizinginf‌luence of BWCs has
been a central focus of considerable researchers. Early studies showed promise, demonstrating dra-
matic reductions in police use of force (Ariel et al., 2015). However, as time went on, the literature
began to show mixed results. Some studies echoed the earlier success stories (e.g., Jennings et al.,
2017), whereas others found that BWCs had no signif‌icant inf‌luence on use of force reports and
the number of civilian complaints (e.g., Yokum et al., 2017), or curiously reported increases in
police use of force (Ariel et al., 2016a) and assault against law enforcement (Ariel et al., 2016b).
Recent reviews on these studies have concluded that the BWCs have an inconsistent effect on reduc-
ing the number of use of force reports, while its effects on minimizing civilian complaints are some-
what consistent (Lum et al., 2019; Lum et al., 2020; Malm, 2019).
These inconsistent f‌indings are likely due to a number of factors, including (1) unaccounted mod-
erators or variables that may strengthen, attenuate, or reverse the effect of BWCs (Malm, 2019) and
(2) unavoidable methodological issues associated with BWC f‌ield research, such as the contamina-
tion of control groups (Cubitt et al., 2017; Maskaly et al., 2017).
The purpose of this paper is to address the inconsistencies in BWC research in relation to the civ-
ilizing effect. We start by addressing the existing theoretical framework which would suggest that
deterrence and self-awareness would generate a civilizing effect on off‌icers and civilians alike in
the presence of BWCs. Next, we highlight the mixed f‌indings on the effects of BWCs and discuss
why this might be the case. Specif‌ically, we elaborate on unaccounted psychological factors
(e.g., civilian attitudes), which could potentially explain the attenuation or even the reversal of the
civilizing effect despite what theories would suggest. Some of the psychological factors in this
review have been mentioned in past literature (e.g., police attitudes), whereas others have not
(e.g., civilian stress). However, these variables have one thing in common: They have not been con-
sistently analyzed as moderators in previous studies, and no published studies could be located that
accounted for all of these moderators. In this review, we make the case of why these variables should
be incorporated in interaction models assessing the civilizing effect. In addition, we expound upon
the methodological limitations of past f‌ield experiments (i.e., contamination, unit of analyses, and
low base rates). We then propose how a multi-method approach could help paint a clearer picture
of how BWCs could facilitate civility. Overall, we attempt to explain why inconsistencies in
BWC outcomes may exist based on the theoretical and methodological issues found in the current
BWC literature.
Theoretical Framework
BWC scholars have typically based their hypotheses about the inf‌luence of BWCs on police and
civilian behavior utilizing two main theories: Self-Awareness and Deterrence theory (e.g., Ariel,
22 Criminal Justice Review 48(1)

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