Understanding Body-Worn Camera Diffusion in U.S. Policing

Date01 September 2020
Published date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
2020, Vol. 23(3) 396–422
! The Author(s) 2020
Body-Worn Camera
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611120917937
Diffusion in U.S. Policing
Justin Nix1
, Natalie Todak2, and
Brandon Tregle1
By 2016, approximately one half of American police agencies had adopted body-
worn cameras (BWCs). Although a growing body of research has examined the
impact of BWCs on outcomes such as use of force, complaints, and perceptions
of police, few have considered how and why some agencies adopted BWCs, while
others have not. With guidance from the diffusion of innovations paradigm, this study
explores variation in BWC adoption by police agencies. Drawing on a survey admin-
istered to a national probability sample of 665 municipal police executives in the
spring of 2018, we found agency size, region, and the demographic composition of
municipalities were associated with BWC usage. We then examined executives’
support for (or opposition to) legislation that would require BWC footage to be
released publicly. Results suggest (a) a variety of environmental factors were asso-
ciated with support and (b) the correlates of support varied across agencies of
different sizes.
body-worn cameras, innovation, technology, law enforcement, institutional theory
1School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha
2Department of Criminal Justice, University of Alabama Birmingham
Corresponding Author:
Justin Nix, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of Nebraska at Omaha, 6001 Dodge
Street 218 CPACS, Omaha, NE 68182, United States.
Email: jnix@unomaha.edu

Nix et al.
American police agencies have faced enormous pressure to embrace and deploy
body-worn cameras (BWCs) in recent years (President’s Task Force on 21st
Century Policing, 2015; White & Malm, 2020). This pressure stems from the
belief that close-up footage of police–citizen encounters can (1) shed light on
whether officers’ actions are constitutional and necessary, and (2) enhance
accountability when misconduct occurs (White, 2014a). Explaining the fervor
for BWCs, Lum et al. (2019 ) said that there may be “a growing expectation
among the public that adopting BWCs is a marker of a responsive, transparent,
and legitimate police organization” (p. 19). BWCs are also supported by officers
as they protect against frivolous complaints and disciplinary investigations,
offer more realistic depictions of police work, and assure the courts and
public when proper procedures are followed (Gaub et al., 2020). To date,
more than 70 studies have tested these claims (Lum et al., 2019). While the
evidence is mixed, it suggests that in some contexts, BWCs offer benefits for
both police and citizens (Malm, 2019).
BWCs gained national attention following two pivotal events—Manhattan
Federal District Court Judge Scheindlin’s recommendation that the New York
City Police Department wear cameras to prevent racial profiling in 2013 and the
fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson (MO) police officer in 2014
(White & Malm, 2020). By 2014, between one quarter and one third of U.S.
police agencies were using cameras on at least some of their patrol officers
(Miller et al., 2014; Reaves, 2015). In 2015, the two largest manufacturers—
TASER (now Axon) and VieVu—reported selling devices to 41% of U.S.
departments (Mearian, 2015). Most recently, the Bureau of Justice Statistics
found nearly one half of agencies in 2016—approximately 9,000 in total—had
adopted the technology, including 80% of agencies employing 500 or more
officers (Hyland, 2018). Note that these estimates are already 4 years old, so
the number of agencies using BWCs may now be higher.
BWCs are part of an ongoing tradition in law enforcement to leverage
advanced technologies to improve the distribution of police services, the effec-
tiveness of crime control strategies, and the efficiency and fairness of case proc-
essing (see, e.g., Manning, 1996 on cellular phones; Weisburd et al., 2003 on
COMPSTAT; and White, 2014b on TASERs). Criminal justice scholars have
pointed to Wejnert’s (2002) diffusion of innovations framework as a useful tool
for understanding why certain innovations—such as BWCs—take root, spread,
and become normalized in criminal justice (Klinger, 2003; Morabito, 2010;
Skogan & Hartnett, 2005; Weiss, 1997; White, 2014b; White & Malm, 2020).
Wejnert (2002) identified three groups of factors—characteristics of the innova-
tion (BWCs), the adopter (police agencies), and the larger environment (the
served community)—which influence whether an innovation diffuses in a
social system. In criminal justice, understanding this process can inform our
broader understanding of how change occurs in the system, the specific social
forces driving demands for new innovations and reforms, and the roles these

Police Quarterly 23(3)
innovations will play moving forward (Klinger, 2003). Thus far, BWC research
has focused on the characteristics of the innovation (BWCs) and its impact on
adopters and stakeholders (Lum et al., 2019). Few have tried to trace or explain
the diffusion of the technology or examine what agency and environmental
factors are related to its adoption, usage, and support (see Nowacki & Willits,
2018; Smith, 2019 for exceptions). As such, our understanding of how and why
BWCs have diffused in U.S. law enforcement is incomplete.
Guided by the diffusion of innovations paradigm, this study explores varia-
tion in BWC usage at the agency level. Drawing on a survey administered to a
national probability sample of 665 municipal police chiefs in the spring of 2018,
the paper first examines the relationship between BWC usage and agency size as
well as the geographic, political, and cultural conditions of the agency’s envi-
ronment (Wejnert, 2002). To assess how transparent respondents are willing to
be with BWCs, we further explore whether these factors are related to support
for legislation that would require releasing BWC video upon request as public
The Innovation—BWCs
Wejnert’s (2002) summary of the diffusion of innovations literature identified
three groups of factors affecting whether an innovation becomes established and
spreads in a social system: characteristics of the innovation, the innovator,
and the environment. With respect to the innovation, the anticipated
benefits and consequences of adoption can affect diffusion. There may be
both private and public consequences, reflecting the impact of the innovation
on adopters and external stakeholders. Innovations tend to be viewed more
favorably by stakeholders when potential benefits outweigh the risks and
costs. Throughout police history, there are examples of innovations that have
and have not taken root. For example, DNA evidence may only be used by
police homicide detectives as a last resort because the analysis process is expen-
sive and onerous (Schroeder & White, 2009). COMPSTAT, on the other hand,
diffused widely because it meshed well with the existing values and operations of
policing (Crank & Langworthy, 1992; Weisburd et al., 2003).
BWC research has thus far focused on testing the consequences, costs, and
benefits of the innovation (Lum et al., 2019). Police agencies began adopting
BWCs in hopes they would enhance transparency, improve perceptions of
police, civilize police–citizen encounters, offer evidentiary value, and provide
opportunities for training (White, 2014a). Many studies show BWCs can
improve police working conditions by reducing citizen complaints (see, e.g.,
Ariel et al., 2015; Braga et al., 2017; Hedberg et al., 2017; Jennings et al.,
2015), improving citizen perceptions of and interactions with police (Crow
et al., 2017; Demir et al., 2020; Sousa et al., 2018; White et al., 2017), and
reducing court case processing time (Morrow et al., 2016; White, Todak,

Nix et al.
et al., 2018). Furthermore, BWCs may reduce police–citizen violence in some
contexts (Gaub & White, 2020).
White and Malm (2020) argue BWC diffusion was facilitated by support
from diverse groups of stakeholders who are normally at odds with each
other: police leadership organizations, civil rights groups, police unions, and
citizens. However, there are still concerns among stakeholders. The most signif-
icant is the immense cost of storing video footage which, for large agencies, can
add up to millions of dollars per year (Bakst & Foley, 2015; Phillips, 2015).
Agencies must also dedicate human resources to training, reviewing and redact-
ing footage, auditing videos for officer behavior, technological support, and
order maintenance (White & Malm, 2020). Yet, despite the up-front costs,
BWCs have the potential to generate a net reduction in costs to an agency
over time. Braga et al. (2017) calculated a savings of $4 million per year after
the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department adopted BWCs, mostly due to
the reduced time spent investigating citizen complaints.
Also using a diffusion of innovations framework, Todak et al. (2018) con-
ducted focus groups and interviews with a range of stakeholders impacted by the
adoption of BWCs in Spokane (WA) and Tempe (AZ). Stakeholders voiced
reservations about BWCs based on their positions in the community. Victims’
advocates, for example, were concerned with their clients’ worst moments being
preserved on BWC video, which could damage reputations and hurt future
employment prospects. Prosecutors were overwhelmed with the amount of
video evidence they now had to process for each...

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