UNLV criminal justice researchers released results from a national public opinion survey of body worn cameras on police officers. Citizens were asked about their general awareness of the cameras as well as for opinions on the potential advantages and consequences of the camera use in various policing situations.
Many people surveyed believe cameras could improve transparency but do not want media to access video footage. Respondents were also concerned cameras could infringe on privacy rights.
The online survey was conduced in May 2015 and a total of 635 people 18 or older across the U.S. responded. The respondents were primarily male, white, and over 30 years old.
Public opinion varied on how body cameras might impact relationships between the police and community. People are less optimistic that cameras will improve relationships between police and citizens — particularly relationships between police and minority citizens.
William Sousa, director of the Center for Crime and Justice Policy at UNLV's Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, notes that the survey was conducted within a year of several controversial cases involving police and citizen interactions that resulted in death. A heightened awareness of current events and a federal push for body-worn cameras provide context to the public's opinion in the report.
"The relationship between police and citizens — and police and minority citizens — is far more complex than can be solved by a particular type of technology," Sousa said. "For the most part, people are far more suspicious of the ability to improve relationships, even though much of the federal push has stemmed from racial tensions resulting from recent cases involving police and citizens."
- Overall support for body cameras on police is very high, though the support for the technology varies on the type of activity that police perform.
- 40 percent said victims and witnesses might be apprehensive about cooperating with police knowing their statement would be recorded
- 61 percent said citizens would have a greater trust in police
- 36 percent reported the cameras would help reduce racial tension between police and citizens
Results showed people generally agree that cameras will result in more police respect toward citizens, fewer incidents of police misconduct, and more effective information gathering by police.
Sousa says more research is needed to help city, county and state governments develop policies and procedures and consider privacy implications.
"The survey points to the idea that a lot of people are not aware of the consequences related to privacy or trust between officers and citizens," Sousa said. "For example, will people be more reluctant to talk with officers knowing their conversations will always be recorded? Would police officers and public safety agencies agree to turn off cameras upon a citizen's request?"
Sousa says the public perceives that the police officers are involved in more high profile incidents, but responding to serious crime is a small part of what they do. Using force is a very small part of managing serious crime, Sousa said. Cameras may be relevant for those cases.
"If a citizen truly believes the officer did not do his or her job properly, there's a way to challenge the issue," Sousa said. "It could protect citizens from misconduct and excessive force, and it could protect officers from false complaints made by citizens. It has the potential to protect officers and citizens and encourage transparency."
Collaborating with Sousa on the study were Terance D. Miethe and Mari Sakiyama in the department of criminal justice at UNLV's Greenspun College of Urban Affairs. Additional research briefs can be found on the Center for Crime and Justice Policy website.