Over the last decade, police departments across the United States have come under escalating pressure from the public, the media, civil rights organizations, and politicians to increase the accountability of their officers and departmental transparency, particularly regarding the use of force. In response to this pressure, many of the nation’s law enforcement agencies have either adopted or begun to explore body-worn camera technology. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, is not exempt from the body-worn camera phenomenon. Having explored the technology in 2014 and 2018, CBP is at a decisional crossroads regarding body-worn camera implementation. Many other departments have relied on the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of body-worn cameras to support their decision to adopt the technology. However, the most recent RCTs have produced mixed results as to whether body-worn cameras reduce the use of force or complaints. A 2015 RCT conducted in Las Vegas showed that body-worn cameras reduced the use of force and complaints against officers while a 2016 RCT conducted in Washington, D.C., revealed that the technology did not have a statistically significant effect on either area of concern.
Many police departments have been quick to adopt the technology despite contradictory evidence concerning its effectiveness. However, neither the academic nor the law enforcement communities have closely examined its effectiveness in isolation or attempted to determine whether other means accomplish the same goals. It is unclear whether body-worn cameras have produced the benefits reported by some studies or if other peripheral measures taken by the departments involved in those studies are responsible.
The cost of enterprise-wide body-worn camera implementation is staggering for an agency as large and geographically dispersed as CBP. Although the agency has not publicly released its internal cost estimates, a recent Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) report indicates that the average annual cost associated with body-worn cameras was $2,069 per camera. For CBP, this equates to approximately $103.45 million per year. This figure does not include any needed infrastructure upgrades such as increasing the bandwidth of CBP’s network and the physical construction costs associated with information technology upgrades. This cost will affect CBP’s ability to fund other border security initiatives. For example, the president has directed CBP to hire an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents; to that end, CBP’s fiscal year 2019 budget allocates $211 million to hire only 500 agents. The annual cost of body-worn cameras is equivalent to hiring 367 Border Patrol agents.
To investigate the effectiveness of body-worn cameras beyond the results observed in the most recent RCTs, this thesis studies the cases of two large police departments and the impact of the peripheral measures and reforms they have taken in conjunction with body-worn camera implementation. It uses a comparative case study methodology to examine body-worn camera experiences as well as other reform initiatives of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) and the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia (MPDC) to help CBP leadership understand the potential efficacy of the technology and answer the question of whether CBP should adopt the use of body-worn cameras.
Although empirical studies of body-worn cameras vary slightly, the majority measure the technology’s impact on officer use of force and citizen complaints against officers to judge the technology’s efficacy. By analyzing the other actions taken by the sample departments prior to the implementation of body-worn cameras and the impact of those actions on officer use of force and citizen complaints against officers, this thesis could determine whether the technology alone was effective at reducing the use of force and complaints or other reform measures were more effective.
Data from the LVMPD and the MPDC suggest that the technology has not been more effective than other police reform measures at reducing the use of force and complaints within those departments. The CBP context resembles that of the LVMPD and the MPDC. The agency has implemented numerous reform measures similar to those undertaken by the LVMPD and the MPDC to address the use of force and complaints—with the exception of adopting body-worn camera technology. These measures included changes in use-of-force policies, increased focus on scenario-based training, implementation of use-of-force review boards, and an increased focus on providing the public timely information regarding use-of-force incidents, specifically deadly use of force. CBP’s results have been similar to those observed in the MPDC, despite the fact that CBP has not implemented a body-worn camera program. As observed in the MPDC, CBP’s use-of-force data suggest that these measures have had a positive impact on decreasing the number of CBP’s deadly force incidents. However, the use of less-lethal force has increased in both agencies. The LVMPD experienced different results. In 2017, after fully implementing its department-wide body-worn camera program, the department experienced a spike in deadly force incidents. However, the department has realized a significant reduction in less-lethal use of force. While CBP has not consistently published complaint statistics, overall complaints have risen in both the LVMPD and the MPDC despite body-worn camera implementation.
According to findings from the case studies—and the similarities among CBP’s reformative measures and those of the departments studied—body-worn cameras are not likely to reduce CBP’s number of use-of-force incidents or complaints made against CBP law enforcement personnel. If CBP’s reasoning for adopting the technology is to address the use of force and complaints, the agency may not realize the desired results. However, if the agency’s reasoning for adopting body-worn cameras is to increase its transparency, CBP may realize that goal. As demonstrated by the LVMPD case study, departments have used the technology to provide more information to the public regarding use-of-force events. When departments release body-worn camera footage in a timely fashion and in conjunction with a formalized public information release program, the technology has shown promise in increasing transparency. Therefore, to realize a benefit in transparency, CBP will likely have to formalize a process for the timely release of body-worn camera footage of use-of-force events.
Based on the impact of body-worn cameras on the areas of concern identified in this thesis, the findings do not support the adoption of the technology by CBP. However, it would be naïve to ignore the external pressures and expectations of the agency to do so. It would be equally imprudent not to acknowledge that body-worn cameras, perhaps erroneously, are now seen among the best practices of policing. Recognizing that the decision to implement body-worn cameras may not be based solely on the technology’s proven efficacy, this thesis makes the following recommendations if CBP decides to implement body-worn cameras.
This research has shown that body-worn cameras may not have the impact expected by many of the stakeholders. Therefore, CBP should properly manage the stakeholders’ expectations. The agency should clearly express its reasoning for adopting the technology and be realistic as to what it expects from the technology. This research indicates that body-worn camera implementation does not necessarily equal a reduction in the use of force and complaints. Non-governmental organizations, political leaders, the public, and internal stakeholders should be made of aware of this fact. This thesis has also shown that CBP may be able to leverage body-worn camera technology to increase the agency’s transparency. To accomplish this, CBP should examine the LVMPD’s process of using body-worn camera footage in conjunction with a proactive public information release process. CBP needs to be willing and able to show the public and other concerned parties videos of use-of-force incidents in a timely manner to realize this benefit.
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