Since the summer of 2014, community members, politicians, and police executives across the country have called for greater police accountability and improvements in police-community relations. Body-worn cameras are widely seen as serving both ends. Today, thousands of police agencies are exploring, adopting, and implementing body-cam programs. A survey by the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Major County Sheriffs’ Association found that 95% of surveyed agencies had either implemented or were committed to implementing a BWC program.
Body-worn cameras are here, and more are coming. Mary Fan, for example, has described a “camera cultural revolution” in which “the future will be recorded.” Legal scholars have largely responded to this burgeoning new technology by addressing it through the framework of traditional discussions about privacy, police accountability, or the rules of evidence. Relatively few articles have gone further by identifying the potential benefits of BWCs and critically examining whether the adoption of this technology by police agencies can truly do what the many proponents claim. This Article falls solidly into the latter camp.
This Article is not intended to endorse or condemn police body-cams, but rather to identify and critically examine the potential benefits of the technology in light of its capabilities and limitations. For more than two years now, I have educated a variety of audiences about police BWCs, from state supreme court justices to practicing attorneys and from police executives to rank-and-file officers, and I have repeatedly been asked some variant of what appears to be a simple question: are body cameras a good idea? My response is no doubt familiar to law students across the country: it depends. Body-worn cameras are a tool. Tools should be used to advance normatively desirable goals when they are an efficient way of accomplishing or facilitating those goals. Body-cameras, like any tool, should not be used when the goal itself it inappropriate or when the tool is ill-suited for the job at hand.
This Article explores the limits of BWCs as a tool. It does so by first reviewing the historical justifications for, implementation of, and lessons learned from an earlier iteration of police video recording technology: in-car cameras. It then offers a simplified way of conceptualizing the multitudinous advantages that BWC proponents have identified, putting them into three categories: symbolic benefits, behavioral benefits, and informational benefits. This classification is a necessary first-step in police agencies and communities articulating what they hope to achieve with a BWC program. Whether body-cams will advance the desired goals depends on the practical limitations of the technology and our ability to interpret the resulting video footage as well as the policies and procedures that govern implementation. The latter half of the paper is dedicated to a critical examination of the practical limitations and policy considerations that will ultimately determine whether body-worn cameras can live up to the hype.
Seth Stoughton, Police Body-Worn Cameras, 96 N. C. L. Rev. 1363 (2018).