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Encounters between the police and citizens have garnered considerable media attention in recent years, and law enforcement agencies across the country have responded. One of the most widespread new initiatives is the introduction of body-worn cameras, or BWCs. Because these devices record an officer’s experiences in real time, they hold the potential to offer the police and the public an objective vantage point on potentially controversial events, to improve law enforcement-community relations, and to aid in the prosecution of crimes.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is working to build an evidence-base to determine whether BWCs will indeed achieve these outcomes, and if so, how they can best be used. We commissioned five research projects into questions such as how BWCs impact use-of-force by police and the public’s perceptions of police legitimacy. We also funded a large research project to look into existing and ongoing research on BWCs, to identify gaps, and to make recommendations for future studies.

This latter project was undertaken by researchers at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University (GMU). GMU has just released a report on the first phase of the project; the report surveys completed and ongoing empirical studies that examine how BWCs impact both law enforcement and court proceedings. It locates significant research gaps and opportunities.

GMU researchers found twelve completed studies regarding the impact of BWCs on law enforcement activities, and an additional thirty studies in progress. By contrast, they found only three ongoing empirical studies into the effect BWCs have on courts and in court proceedings.

The report outlines an imbalance in research focus when it comes to BWCs. For example, while 20 of the existing and ongoing studies explore the impact of BWCs on officers’ interactions with the public, not a single study examined the impact of BWCs on an officer’s compliance with the Fourth Amendment, which prevents unreasonable searches and seizures, and none looked at the potential relationship between use of BWCs and explicit or implicit bias or differential treatment by officers.

As for critical questions such as how BWCs impact a victim’s willingness to call the police, a witness’ willingness to cooperate with an investigation, the development of informants, attitudes about privacy, or officer retention, researchers located only a single study on each of these topics.

When it comes to how BWCs are used in court proceedings, we know even less. We have, for example, no data on the impact of BWCs on the behavior of prosecutors, defense counsel, or decision-makers. We know, in other words, nothing about whether and how BWCs affect charging or plea decisions, witness preparation, or credibility assessments — much less how courts handle a technology failure or a failure to warn a citizen that a recording is being made.

There is clearly much more to be done. In the words of the GMU team, The need for more research in this area is paramount, as the adoption of BWCs will likely have important implications for police-citizen interactions, police management and budgets, safety and security, citizen privacy, citizen reporting and cooperation with police, and practices in the courts.”

With this research agenda-setting project, our goal is to gather the information we need to help BWCs live up to their potential.