Benefits and Barriers to Implementing Police Body-Worn Cameras

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Executive Summary

Police body-worn cameras have recently gained traction in Canada’s policy landscape due to the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-racist protests in 2020. Several police departments across Canada and the United States have adopted new technology to increase police transparency and accountability. However, there is limited research on the effectiveness of body-worn camera use in the United States and the United Kingdom and even less research in the Canadian context.[1] The limited evidence available from academic literature and pilot projects shows mixed results on the effectiveness of body-worn cameras in reducing the excessive use of force by officers.[2] This article will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of police body-worn cameras from the available literature.

Primary Benefits of Body-Worn Cameras

Fewer Complaints Against Officers

Emerging research from thousands of police services worldwide has found that the use of body-worn cameras has reduced the number of complaints against police officers to nearly zero and complaints of excessive use of force by up to 50%.[3] Arrest rates have decreased, and cooperation with police has improved with the use of body-worn cameras.[4]

Body-worn cameras have also been found to resolve interactions between police and civilians taken to court, with studies showing that a significant amount of time and resources can be saved in investigating public complaints against police officers when video evidence is available.[5] Jay Stanley, a Senior Policy Analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, argues that video footage from the cameras can be beneficial to both civilians victimized by police misconduct and police officers who are victims of wrongful complaints.[6] In Canada, this video evidence has helped reduce the volume of court cases in Canada’s overloaded court systems.[7]

New Training Material for Officers 

The footage from body-worn cameras has also generated valuable data for researchers to investigate police-civilian interactions,[8] and to provide training material for police officers.[9] In one 2017 study, for example, researchers used computational linguistic tools to analyze video footage from police body-worn cameras in Oakland, California.  The researchers found that police spoke “with consistently less respect toward black versus white community members, even after controlling for the race of the officer, the severity of the infraction, the location of the stop, and the outcome of the stop.[10] Proponents of police body-worn cameras believe that these insights can provide key learning opportunities to improve police practices over time.

Combatting Institutional Subculture 

A contributing factor to police officers’ attitudes and behaviour, including the use of force or injuries in the line of duty, is an institutional subculture.[11] Institutional subculture is the collective mindset shaped by organizational procedures, incentives, management, and behaviours that preserve group cohesion and plays a role in how and why officers react to situations in similar ways.[12]

Evidence suggests that the surveillance effect produced by wearing body-worn cameras can standardize officer reactions in various situations and lead to increased accountability that persists even when officers are not under video surveillance.[13] This effect is due to the increased levels of self-awareness and self-scrutiny generated by using a body-worn camera.[14] Ariel et al. suggest that as internal cultural changes persist and are supplemented by better training and experience, there may no longer be a need for body-worn cameras to enforce police officer accountability.[15]

Drawbacks and Concerns with Use of Body-Worn Cameras

Weak Enforcement and Accountability Structures

Like Dr. Emmeline Taylor, Co-Director at the Surveillance Studies Network, those who question the benefits of police body-worn cameras argue that an officer’s ability to choose when to record, edit, censor, or redact from recordings undermine any potential benefits that body-worn cameras would provide.[16]  In the absence of a robust policy framework to regulate the handling, editing, and recording of footage, critics contend that body-worn cameras are vulnerable to abuse and unlikely to achieve greater accountability among police forces. Peter K. Manning, Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, claims that when new monitoring technology, such as cameras in patrol cars, has been introduced in the United States in the past, officers have responded by turning off cameras and microphones, changing the camera angle, and deleting footage.[17]

There is currently no legislation in Canada that directly addresses police body-worn cameras. The only document that directly addresses police body-worn cameras’ legal implications is the Guidance for the Use of Body-worn Cameras by Law Enforcement Authorities by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.[18] However, this is only a guidance document and not legally binding.[19]

The Police Services Act, the Privacy Act, and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act (FIPPA), meanwhile, each indirectly address body-worn cameras. However, these documents are still open to various interpretations.[20] Police have broad authority under FIPPA to collect, use and disclose personal information for law enforcement purposes.[21] The recordings from body-worn cameras could be categorized as evidence at an officer’s discretion. At this point, the footage could be retained indefinitely under the Canada Evidence Act. [22]

Negative Impacts of Surveillance on Officers

Increased surveillance can also cause increased stress and burnout in officers and is associated with many other issues, including suicidal ideation and aggression.[23]This effect may exacerbate the high levels of stress that police officers already experience daily. However, if coupled with increased organizational support, including emotional regulation training and supervisory support, this could mediate the effects of officer burnout from body-worn cameras and daily stressors.[24]

Evidence also suggests that the increased awareness of being monitored also leads to “over deterrence” in the use of force, even when necessary for police to protect themselves.[25] This effect may increase officers’ susceptibility to being assaulted in conflicts with civilians.[26]

Biases and the Ambiguity of Video Footage

Preliminary research reveals the presence of biases and reflexive judgment by viewers of ambiguous footage obtained from body-worn cameras. Social identification, mediated by shared values and investment in a group, often increases negative judgments about people outside one’s social group and can play a role in how individuals interpret the actions of police officers.[27] In a 2014 study, Granot et al. tested the relationship between social identification and the interpretation of ambiguous footage of police altercations.[28] Their results found that participants who strongly identified with police officers had more positive judgements of an officers’ actions than participants with weaker group identification with police officers.[29] Additionally, Kalle and Hammock find that implicit racial bias may be present when people are asked to judge ambiguous footage from body-worn cameras.[30]

The perspective of the camera can also affect the interpretation of video footage. Research on police interrogation footage demonstrated that viewers are more likely to perceive the suspect as guilty when the camera focuses on the officer or both the officer and the suspect than when the camera focuses exclusively on a suspect.[31] A similar effect occurs when people are asked to focus on a civilian in footage from body-worn cameras.[32]

The underlying concern that the findings of these studies raise is that both the collection and display of footage can potentially be manipulated to influence a third party’s perception of a recorded event.

Privacy Concerns

Body-worn cameras raise concerns about increased government surveillance and violation of privacy.  Vulnerable populations such as undocumented migrants,  the mentally ill,  and victims of crime face more significant privacy-specific risks, and accordingly, may stand to benefit from greater anonymity.[33] Jay Stanley maintains that there needs to be a balance to ensure that officers cannot manipulate video records while also respecting the privacy of subjects recorded.[34] He finds that the current limitations of today’s technology may prove this balance to be challenging.[35]

While officers using body-worn cameras in Canada are required to inform civilians that they are being recorded, civilians do not have the option to refuse or withdraw their consent.[36] Additionally, officers using body-worn cameras can record inside people’s homes under “exceptional circumstances,” which may jeopardize an individual’s right to be secure against unreasonable search and seizure under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.[37]

Technical Issues

Currently, there are many limitations to the technology available to serve as body-worn cameras, most notably a short battery life which cannot last entire shifts.[38] Even in cases where cameras can record entire shifts, storing the hundreds of hours of footage is a high cost, which is increased by the intensive labour required to process and retrieve the footage.[39]

Body-worn cameras are also susceptible to equipment malfunction and error. Previous pilot projects have identified repeated problems with the devices, including loss of date and time stamps of the recordings, incorrect identification of officers, low image quality, and video and audio file corruption.[40] Other limitations have been found in the cameras’ different designs, such as limited fields of view, few recording resolutions, and difficulty mounting the cameras on officers’ uniforms.[41]

High Costs 

Currently, the costs to purchase body-worn cameras, and the associated costs to repair and replace hardware, store several hours of video data, provide training on appropriate use, and process information requests are very high.[42] One of the most significant cost drivers is the salaries of the additional staff and police officers needed to implement the program while maintaining the same productivity levels across police services.[43]The Durham Regional Police Service estimated that the overall cost of the first year of implementation of a body-worn camera program would increase operating costs by $24 million, or by 12.7%.[44]


Preliminary research about police body-worn cameras’ effectiveness shows many benefits to implementing the technology, including reduced use of force by officers, fewer public complaints, and new footage for research and training. However, research on police body-worn cameras is in its early stages and without definitive results. To date, the research performed on police body-worn cameras is limited to the U.S., which can distort the perceived benefits and drawbacks of body cameras in Canada if research is not adequately contextualized.  For instance, vastly different rates of gun ownership heavily influence how police in each country are trained to interpret and respond to situations.  However, the rising implementation of body-worn cameras in Canadian cities will help further understand this technology and its impact on policing. Given how new the technology is and its limited implementation, these benefits need to be considered in tandem with several more negative factors, including implicit biases in interpreting ambiguous video footage, privacy concerns, technical issues, and high implementation costs.


[1] Erick Laming, “Push for police to wear body cameras is premature,” Policy Options, 22 October 2019,

[2] Thomas K. Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada,” Surveillance and Society 14, no. 1 (2016): 117-121,

[3] Barak Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed: testing the effect of police body-worn cameras on assaults and aggression against officers,” Journal of Experimental Criminology 14, (2017),

[4] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness.”

[5] Shaun Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing: The Value and Costs of Implementation in Canada,” (master’s thesis, University of the Fraser Valley, 2017),

[6] Jay Stanley, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras: With Right Policies in Place, a Win for All,” American Civil Liberties Union, October 2013,

[7] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[8] Rob Voigt et al., “Language from police body camera footage shows racial disparities in officer respect,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 114, no. 25 (2017),

[9] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[10] Voigt et al., “Language from police body camera footage.”

[11] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[12] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[13] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[14] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[15] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[16] Emmeline Taylor, “Lights, Camera, Redaction… Police Body-Worn Cameras: Autonomy, Discretion and Accountability,” Surveillance and Society 14, no. 1 (2016),

[17] Manning, “Will the widespread use of police body cameras improve police accountability? No.”

[18] Canada, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “Guidance for the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement authorities,” Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, February 2015,

[19] Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, “Guidance for the Use of Body-Worn Cameras.”

[20] Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada.”

[21] Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada.”

[22] Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada.”

[23] Ian Adams and Sharon Mastracci, “Police Body-Worn Cameras: Effects on Officers’ Burnout and Perceived Organizational Support,” Police Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2019),

[24] Adams and Mastracci, “Police Body-Worn Cameras.”

[25] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[26] Ariel et al., “Paradoxical effects of self-awareness of being observed.”

[27] Yael Granot et al., “Justice Is Not Blind: Visual Attention Exaggerates Effects of Group Identification on Legal Punishment,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 143, no. 6 (2014),

[28] Granot et al., “Justice is Not Blind.”

[29] Granot et al., “Justice is Not Blind.”

[30] Kalle and Hammock, “Bias in Video Evidence.”

[31] Kalle and Hammock, “Bias in Video Evidence.”

[32] Kalle and Hammock, “Bias in Video Evidence.”

[33] Mateescu, Rosenblat, and Boyd, “Dreams of Accountability, Guaranteed Surveillance.”

[34] Stanley, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras.”

[35] Stanley, “Police Body-Mounted Cameras.”

[36] Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada.”

[37] Bud, “The Rise and Risks of Police Body-Worn Cameras in Canada.”

[38] Taylor, “Lights, Camera, Redaction.”

[39] Taylor, “Lights, Camera, Redaction.”

[40] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[41] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[42] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[43] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”

[44] Wright, “Body-Worn Cameras in Policing.”