Initial results from the first scientific investigation into the benefits of patrolling police using body worn cameras show a marked fall in violent confrontation.
And every dollar spent on the technology saves about $4 on complaints against police, according to research based on the introduction of body cameras in Rialto, California, in 2012.
However, the researchers from the University of Cambridge say the level of data storage from the cameras has the potential to become crippling.
“The velocity and volume of data accumulating in police departments — even if only a fraction of recorded events turn into downloadable recordings for evidentiary purposes — will exponentially grow over time,” said Dr Barak Ariel.
“User licenses, storage space, security costs, maintenance and system upgrades can potentially translate into billions of dollars worldwide.”
In Australia, NSW Police are getting the latest technology in a $4 million project over the next few years to give body cameras to patrolling officers.
And this week Northern Territory police started a three-month trial recording high-definition video and audio from of body-worn cameras.
Researchers say the knowledge that events are being recorded creates a self-awareness in all participants during police interactions.
This turns body-worn video into a preventative treatment, causing people to change their behaviour in response to an awareness of surveillance by cameras.
During the 12-month Rialto experiment, use-of-force by officers wearing cameras fell by 59% and reports against officers dropped by 87%.
However, the research team says the Rialto experiment is only the first step on a long road of evidence-gathering.
In the US, President Obama promised to spend $75 million on body-worn cameras to try to restore faith in police forces after the killing of several unarmed black men.
The University of Cambridge researchers are currently replicating the Rialto experiment with 30 police forces across the world, from the West Yorkshire force in the UK to forces in the US and Uruguay.
The findings are expected to be announced in July 2015.
“Historically, courtroom testimonies of response officers have carried tremendous weight, but prevalence of video might lead to reluctance to prosecute when there is no evidence from body-worn-cameras to corroborate the testimony of an officer, or even a victim,” said Ariel.
“Body-worn-video has the potential to improve police legitimacy and enhance democracy, not least by calming situations on the front line of policing to prevent the pain and damage caused by unnecessary escalations of volatile situations. But there are substantial effects of body-worn-video that can potentially offset the benefits which future research needs to explore.”
The researchers urge police forces considering implementing body-worn-cameras to contact them for guidance.
The initial results of the study, “The Effect of Police Body-Worn Cameras on Use of Force and Citizens’ Complaints Against the Police: A Randomised Controlled Trial”, is reported in the Journal of Quantitative Criminology.
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