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Open to Interpretation: Confronting the Challenges of Understanding the Current State of Body-Worn Camera Research

Abstract

In only five years, both the implementation of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) and the evidence base evaluating the technology has diffused at a breakneck pace. As the number of studies has increased, so too has the uncertainty surrounding BWCs and their impact on various outcomes. In this commentary, we bring together the differing viewpoints on the five existing summaries of the BWC literature, highlight the key sources of contention, and make recommendations for BWC scholars and consumers moving forward.

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Notes

  1. This includes: Peer-reviewed, empirical studies on any outcome related to BWCs; reports documenting agency evaluations of BWC trials or pilot tests; and reports documenting independent evaluations of BWC trials or pilot tests. In addition to these 119 documents, our search found one book, three reports detailing findings from the LEMAS survey (including BWC supplement), six summary reports, 15 commentaries, and 37 law review articles.

  2. Our focus here is on existing summaries of BWC research, the inconsistencies across those summaries, and the potential reasons (and implications) for those inconsistencies. This focus is certainly more modest than engaging in our own systematic review or meta-analysis of BWC research. We chose this focus for two reasons. First, our research questions center on what consumers of BWC research can learn from existing summaries, and differences in the conclusions of those summaries can reasonable be interpreted. Why are there differences? What are the causes of those differences? Second, Lum et al. (2019) note that they are commissioned by the Campbell Collaborative to complete systematic reviews, including meta-analyses, of BWC research across multiple outcomes. As such, this paper does not attempt to duplicate that effort.

  3. The original article refers to BWCs as BWV; for the sake of consistency and clarity, we change “BWV” to “BWCs,” even in direct quotes.

  4. Maskaly et al. (2017) used Criminal Justice Abstracts, EBSCO Host, PsychInfo, and Google Scholar.

  5. The TTA team provides support to all agencies that have received federal funding through the US Department of Justice Body-Worn Camera Policy and Implementation Program (PIP). One of the authors is the Co-Director of the TTA team.

  6. The White et al. (2019) directories are outcome-specific. Studies that do not examine use of force or complaints are excluded. As a result, the directories focus on a much smaller universe of studies than Lum et al. (2019).

  7. In 2007, the Rialto City Council voted to disband the police department and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office made preparations to take over law enforcement operations within the city limits. This decision by the city council was later overturned by court order, and a new police chief was installed (Kelly & Reston, 2007).

  8. Collaborative Reform is a U.S. Department of Justice technical assistance mechanism available to law enforcement agencies that “offers recommendations based on a comprehensive agency assessment for how to resolve…issues and enhance the relationship between the police and the community.” The form and function of Collaborative Reform has changed considerably under the Trump Administration (https://cops.usdoj.gov/collaborativereform).

  9. See Ariel and colleagues (2018) for a defense of the shift-based randomization.

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Correspondence to Janne E. Gaub.

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Gaub, J.E., White, M.D. Open to Interpretation: Confronting the Challenges of Understanding the Current State of Body-Worn Camera Research. Am J Crim Just 45, 899–913 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12103-020-09518-4

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Keywords

  • Police
  • Body-worn cameras (BWCs)
  • Technology
  • Research base
  • Review