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Survey Officer Attitudes Before Issuing Body Cams, Researchers Urge

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For bests results, it’s important for agencies contemplating the adoption of body-worn cameras to survey their officers’ attitudes about this equipment before issuing it, says a research team of experts on this increasingly hot technology.

Understanding the “extent to which officers are open” to wearing cameras and “their views on the positive and negative aspects of them” can be critical in making the adoption process “as effective and efficient as possible,” writes the team leader, Dr. Wesley Jennings, as associate professor in the Criminology Dept. at the University of South Florida.

As part of a new study on body cams, Jennings and two colleagues, Dr. Lorie Fridell and Mathew Lynch, have published a 15-point survey template that they have used successfully and that can serve as a model in other jurisdictions to mine officer perceptions before cameras are introduced.

This form is designed to reveal among other things, whether officers believe the devices will improve police and suspect behavior, affect their use of force and willingness to respond to calls, and decrease citizen complaints–factors that may prove pivotal to acceptance.

An abstract of the study, titled “Cops and cameras: Officer perceptions of the use of body-worn cameras in law enforcement,” is available free online from the Journal of Criminal Justice. Click here to see it. The full report, including the survey template, can also be accessed there for a modest fee.

POSITIVE ANTICIPATION

The researchers tested the survey on nearly 100 patrol officer volunteers from the Orlando (FL) PD prior to that agency issuing Taser AXON Flex body-worn cameras (BWCs). They found generally that officers were “open and supportive” about using the new gear.

The survey was conducted online and took each officer, most of whom were male and averaged about seven years of service, roughly 15-20 minutes to complete. Participants were asked to indicate their reactions to statements about BWC’s along a five-point scale, ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.”

Overall support

Six in 10 officers (62.7%) agreed or strongly agreed that the department should adopt the cameras for all its officers. While less than 20% said they would actually feel safer wearing the devices, 77% agreed or strongly agreed that they’d feel “comfortable” doing so.

Behavioral influence

Only about 20% believed a camera would improve their own behavior in the field, but more than double that (42.9%) felt that BWCs would “increase the ‘by-the-book’ behavior of other officers.” About four in 10 thought citizen behavior would improve because of the cameras.

Call response

“A strong majority of officers (84.4%) agreed or strongly agreed that wearing body-worn cameras would not reduce their likelihood of responding to calls for service,” the researchers report. However, as with the impact on behavior, the volunteers believed it was “more likely” that the cameras would “reduce other officers’ willingness to respond.”

Use of force

Very few officers (3.3%) agreed or strongly agreed that BWCs “would reduce their own use of force. Yet 20% felt that cameras would reduce the frequency of force by the agency as a whole. Non-white officers in the survey “rated significantly higher agreement in their perception that [BWCs] would reduce their own use of force compared with white officers.”

Complaints

Nearly half (45.1%) thought external (citizen-generated) complaints would decline with camera use, and more than 30% thought internal complaints would drop as well. Female officers in the test group tended to be more optimistic than their male colleagues regarding the impact on both external and internal complaints.

(Jennings’ team notes that studies in California and Arizona of departments where BWCs are actually in use have found significant decreases both in use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.)

RECOMMENDATION

Extrapolated, the Orlando survey suggests that police officers are “receptive and willing consumers of adopting and implementing body-worn cameras,” Jennings writes.

On behalf of his team, he recommends that individual “police departments rigorously assess their own organizational readiness” before implementing BWCs. The survey template can provide “the necessary starting point,” he writes. Given the “significant” cost of buying, maintaining, and updating cameras, “it is important to gain an understanding of officers’ perceptions toward the devices.

“Decreasing the anecdotal evidence about officers’ beliefs,” he explains, and addressing any substantive issues revealed by a survey “can better set in motion empirically based practices that benefit the officer and department.”

Dr. Jennings can be reached at: jenningswgj@usf.edu Our thanks to Michael Brave, member/manager of LAAW International LLC and national/international litigation counsel to Taser International, Inc., for alerting us to this study and to the court case below.

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