New Study Shows Police Body-Worn Cameras Help Reduce Racial Disparities

by Safety Connection

While city of Madison government continues to hem and haw over adopting body cameras for its police department (even though most Dane County law enforcement agencies (including Middleton, Fitchburg and UWPD) have already been using them for years, a new study has come out refuting some of the arguments against body-worn cameras.

UW Law Professor Keith Findley sent a letter to Mayor Rhodes-Conway and the Common Council alders sharing the results from this new study. Professor Findley was the co-chair of the Police Body-Worn Camera Feasibility Review Committee which recommended adoption of a pilot program for MPD in their final report released in January 2021. That report was stalled in various city committees for months, and was finally brought to the council in early July where alders accepted the report (not without drama), but so far have taken no action on starting the pilot program. Money for that program was already set aside in the 2021 Capital Budget which was passed by the council in November 2020.

They elaborated: “The suggestion here is that while Black complainants are taken less seriously and White complainants are taken more seriously (in line with extant research on citizen complaints and race; see Terrill & Ingram, 2016), the presence of BWC technology serves to even the playing field by introducing objective evidence into the investigation process.

BODY-WORN CAMERAS AND ADJUDICATION OF CITIZEN COMPLAINTS OF POLICE MISCONDUCT Suat Çubukçu Nusret M. Sahin Erdal Tekin Volkan Topalli Working Paper 29019

Here is Professor Findley’s letter:

July 23, 2021

Dear Mayor Rhodes-Conway and Alders,

I write to alert you of important new research that has just been released relating to the effects of Body Worn Cameras (BWCs). A new draft paper entitled Body-Worn Cameras and Adjudication of Citizen Complaints of Police Misconduct has been posted as a working paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research. In that paper, researchers from Georgia State University, American University, and Stockton University studied the implementation of BWCs in Chicago and found that the objective record provided by the BWC footage had a significant impact on increasing accountability for police misconduct (as measured by the rate at which civilian complaints were sustained) and in minimizing racial disparities in adjudication of civilian complaints. The researchers concluded, “Our results indicate support for the contention that before the adoption of BWCs, CPD’s citizen complaint investigations process was producing biased outcomes, and that BWC technology helps investigators to conduct more impartial investigations that reduce racial disparities in outcomes.” This paper is particularly important because very little other research examines the extent to which BWCs might have an impact on police accountability or racial disparities in adjudication of civilian complaints. A copy of the full working paper is attached.

The researchers found that, prior to the implementation of BWCs, “[o]nly 1.6% of Black residents’ complaints were sustained between 2011 and 2015, while the overall rate of sustained complaints was just 2.6% during this period, suggesting a potential imbalance of investigative outcomes along racial lines.” BWCs were rolled out over time in Chicago, by district, permitting the researchers to study the effects of the BWCs as they were implemented. The data showed that “[d]eployment of BWC decreases the likelihood of ‘not sustained’ finding [i.e., a finding in favor of the officer] and increases the likelihood of “sustained” finding [i.e., a finding in favor of the complaining civilian], though only the latter is statistically significant at conventional levels.” And the apparent impact of the BWCs was sizable—without BWCs the rate of “sustaining” a civilian’s complaint was 15.4 percent, and the presence of BWCs increased that by 9.9 percent, or by approximately 64 percent.

The researchers specifically noted the impact that BWCs had on reducing racial disparities:

Prior to BWC deployment, complaint investigations are much more likely have a finding of “not sustained” for Black complainants (53 percent) and Hispanic complainants (50 percent) compared to White complainants (38 percent). Similarly, White complainants have a much higher prevalence of having a sustained finding (21 percent) compared to Black complainants (10 percent) and Hispanic complainants (14 percent) prior to BWC deployment. According to descriptive statistics, the disparities in “not sustained” findings largely disappeared following the deployment of BWCs. The prevalence of “not sustained” findings after BWCs is 16 percent among White complainants, 18 percent among Black complainants, and 15 percent among Hispanic complainants. Concerning the “sustained” finding, it appears that the presence of a BWC helps investigation of cases regardless of complainant’s race and ethnicity. In the post-BWC period, the sample means for “sustained” complaints goes up to 45 percent among White complainants, 31 percent among Black complainants, and 27 percent among Hispanic complainants. (Emphasis added.)

BWCs reduce the likelihood of a “not sustained” finding by about 16.2 percentage point among Blacks compared to White complainants, a finding that is statistically significant at conventional levels.

The researchers provided insights about the reasons that BWCs seem to ameliorate racial disparities: “the presence of a BWC helps eliminate ambiguities of conflicting accounts in the complaints of Black and Hispanic complainants more than it does for White complainants, resulting in the narrowing of disparities along racial lines.”

They elaborated: “The suggestion here is that while Black complainants are taken less seriously and White complainants are taken more seriously (in line with extant research on citizen complaints and race; see Terrill & Ingram, 2016), the presence of BWC technology serves to even the playing field by introducing objective evidence into the investigation process. In other words, Black complainants were not given the same level of consideration as White complainants before the deployment of BWCs in Chicago, and BWC technology is an effective tool in minimizing the racial disparity in citizen complaint investigation outcomes.”

Thank you for considering this new information.

Best regards,


Keith A. Findley
Professor of Law
University of Wisconsin Law School

Related Articles