This article appeared on Substack on August 24, 2023.
Over the past two decades, numerous countries and cities have adopted body‐worn camera (BWC) requirements for some or all of their police officers. The primary motivation is to discourage misconduct by creating evidence of any inappropriate behavior.
BWC programs have always been expensive; beyond cameras and associated equipment, costs include administration, monitoring, and (video) file storage.
More recently, police groups in several U.S. cities have requested extra compensation in exchange for wearing BWCs, which makes such programs even more expensive.
So do BWC requirements generate benefits greater than costs?
The evidence is mixed. Some early studies found desirable effects, such as reductions in civilian complaints or reduced police violence, but other research estimates weak or even perverse impacts. A 2020 review offered a tepid endorsement.
This cost‐benefit analysis, however, did not incorporate the police stipends mentioned above (because they did not yet exist). Accounting for these reduces the benefit to cost ratio by about half.
The right policy then becomes less clear. Local police departments should presumably still be free to experiment with BWCs, since these are not obviously harmful and might provide useful evidence.
Yet BWC programs will probably become more expensive over time, assuming police unions negotiate for higher and higher stipends.
In addition, BWCs do not address the most fundamental problem with existing criminal justice systems: laws that should not exist in the first place, such as drug prohibition. Perhaps the greatest cost of BWC requirements, therefore, is detracting attention from this key issue.