The Costs and Benefits of Body-Worn Cameras

The accelerating of technology in police work, business and personal life is dizzying. No matter how you look at it, increase in computing speed and capabilities, increase of availability of digital data transmission and speed, increase of digital storage capabilities and reduction of cost, reduction of size of mechanical items, seems to overwhelms any system. When social, cultural and legal concerns impact this technology, chaos seems to reign.


Society often wants an instant fix to the issues they see as important. During World War II, it could take weeks for reports of a major battle or sinking of a ship with the loss of thousands of souls to make it back to the U.S. Now, it is common for anyone in the world to view it as it happens.

While technology has improved, so has cost. Demands for enhanced services drives costs up.


Increased liability drives costs up. The life cycle of technology has accelerated and to be on the cutting edge can be expensive.


For example, a small, compact low-resolution body-worn camera imported in the United States two years ago was initially listed at $200. The same model is now $15. If a department has invested in that technology initially, the costs would be 1400 percent more than if they waited. Plus, the resolution capabilities of that unit do not compare favorably to those available today.

As technology progressed in the past few decades, video—both analog and digital—became vitally important in police work. It wasn’t enough to recount a confession in court, but it had to be written. Then it had to be recorded. And then it had to be videoed.


For a while, the police were slightly ahead of the curve. We installed in-car video recording systems—first using VHS tapes, then CDs, then DVDs, then memory cards and drive sticks. As useful and valuable as they were, they still only addressed the encounter area directly in front of a patrol car and couldn’t follow the officer.


We were slower to embrace the use and access of fixed video networks; often because technology and cost challenges. But then technology leaped ahead, with broadband and wireless connections making it easier to access and distribute. Now, most persons with a smartphone have the ability to video anything and transmit it instantly. But the police were stuck with in-car systems, with fixed views that did not provide, in many cases, adequate information. We did not have and utilize what the citizens used.


While police departments and other groups have been advocated the giving police officers what the citizens had, technology limits…and cost…stymied their development and implementation. How does a police department consider, examine, plan, adopt and execute a radically new process with equipment on the cutting edge of technology? We study and assess it.


One of the most comprehensive assessments is the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department “Assessment of Potential Implementation of a Personal Recording Device Program in Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Custody Facilities.” While this 620-page assessment addresses use primarily in a custodial situation it has detailed information that would be useful to any agency looking into police body-worn cameras.


In 2014, Dr. Michael D. White prepared an overview for the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center. In his “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras: Assessing the Evidence,” various studies and research resources were reviewed, to look at the various factors that shape the use, the success and the perceptions about body-worn cameras.

There were other agencies that were evaluating body-worn cameras, including the National Institute of Justice’s “A Primer on Body-Worn Cameras for Law Enforcement” (2012), and those from the Rialto (CA) Police Department (2013), Mesa (AZ) Police Department 2013, and the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department (2013).


The first comprehensive study seems to be that of the Rialto police. Police Chief Tony Farrar in 2013. The study was documented in his graduate thesis titled “The Inescapable Panopticonic Gaze: The Effect of Body-Worn Cameras on Police Use Of Force.” This study involved equipping two patrol shifts, “Experimental Shift” and a “Control Shift.”


The Experimental Shift was equipped a high-definition body camera and recorded all interactions with the public. The Control Shift did not use any body-worn cameras. Their findings were that the use of body-worn cameras reduced use-of-force incidents by 59 percent and reduced citizens’ complaints by 87.5 percent

The study by the Mesa (AZ) Police Department, from October 2012 to 2013, fielded 50 body-worn cameras. While the study was examining the challenges of storing and referencing videos, one of the conclusions reached was that there was a 40 percent reduction in complaints and a 75 percent decrease in use-of-force complaints.


A program by the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department involved the use of 56 body-worn cameras and considered the recorded impact of their use over a year. Their conclusions were that body-worn cameras had a “civilizing” effect on citizens. Citizen complaints were reduced by 44 percent. Other notable conclusions were that data storage and retrieval was “manpower intensive” and the video evidence obtained by the body-worn cameras enhanced domestic violence prosecution.


In a 2014 Wichita evaluation of police body-worn cameras and the reference material available, it was pointed out that both the Rialto (CA) Police Department and Mesa (AZ) Police Departments sample size were small. The Wichita (KS) PD has 630 officers, whereas the Rialto (CA) PD has 111 officers with a “significantly number of pre-existing conditions.”

The Wichita evaluation was one of the few which included some basic and supplemental cost analysis. To obtain an additional 440 body-worn cameras, the initial costs of the cameras, docking stations, warranties, and IT infrastructure requirements would be $927, 200. Projected operating costs were estimated at $226,800 a year, plus adding two police positions and misc. expenses at $350,112 a year. The estimated 10-year cost over 10 years was $6,440,585. Using the Wichita (PD) calculations, the costs are extrapolated to be approximately $1,022 per officer per year. This is likely to challenge many budgets.

However, there are some costs savings that can be anticipated, which might mitigate the sticker shock of a body-worn cameras program. According to recommendation by the staff of the Hayward (CA) Police Department and the City in July 2014, they estimated that body-worn cameras have the potential to reduce paid liability by 25 to 50 percent in claims and lawsuits alleging excessive force, as well as reducing costs related to defense or resolution of claims and lawsuits.


Richard Garrison has 35+ years of law enforcement and training experience with federal, state and local LE agencies, with primary experience in investigations, homeland security, close protection and intelligence. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2015

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