Body cameras in jails could offer more transparency

  • Virginia jail experimented with having staff wear body cameras
  • There were fewer uses of force and injuries as a result
  • But some deputies felt the cameras harmed rapport with residents

LOS ANGELES, CA – FEBRUARY 18: A Los Angeles police officer wear an AXON body camera during the Immigrants Make America Great March to protest actions being taken by the Trump administration on February 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. Protesters are calling for an end to stepped up ICE raids and deportations, and that health care be provided for documented and undocumented people. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

(NewsNation) — Body-worn cameras have become increasingly common among police departments, which create a first-person record of police activity and provide transparency that can benefit both police officers and the general public.

But one place where such cameras have rarely been used is in the country’s prisons and jails. The inner workings of these facilities are often a mystery to the general public, making accountability for abuses challenging to obtain.

A Virginia detention center recently experimented with the idea, and researchers found they could help reduce conflict in correctional facilities.

From November 2020 to October 2021, the Loudon County Adult Detection Center (LCADC) worked with the CNA Corporation, a federally-funded think tank, to implement a body-worn camera study.

As part of the study, six out of 12 staff units each month would be randomly assigned to wear body cameras while the other six would continue to work without them. This set up a real-world experiment so that researchers could see how the cameras changed what happened in the jail.

One of the main outcomes the researchers found was a decline in what are called “responses to resistance” events. These are events where inmates refuse to comply, and a staff member has to intervene somehow.

“The amount of responses to resistance that were present when there was a body-worn camera were 40% lower than when there wasn’t a camera present,” said Daniel Lawrence, a research scientist at CNA who worked on the study.

They also found a change in how officers responded during those responses to resistance events.

“So the deputies using their hands or other types of physical controls, that was reduced by 37% in months with cameras compared to no cameras,” Lawrence said.

While there weren’t many prisoner injuries during the study, Lawrence said there were fewer injuries when body cameras were assigned.

Why might the cameras result in more harmonious interactions between staff and inmates? Lawrence pointed to the impact of increased surveillance as changing behaviors on both sides.

“Residents know that there’s going to be documentation, a video documentation of their infraction which can get them more jail time, more prison time, have longer stays and they certainly don’t want that,” he said.

As for the deputies who run the jail, they have to rethink their behavior, too.

“You never know how a use of force or response to resistance is going to pan out once it starts. So they probably would try their best to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” Lawrence said. “And that might be getting at aspects of, I’m going to be more respectful, I’m going to be more polite, I’m going to try to de-escalate as much as I can so that it doesn’t escalate into a response to resistance.”

The researchers did find some potential drawbacks to the cameras when they interviewed prison staff, most notably that it damaged the relationship between staff and residents.

They “weren’t as willing to talk to the deputies, and it made it more challenging for deputies to build rapport with the residents and create relationships where they could get information when they needed that information,” Lawrence said.

Researchers also found the program’s total cost over the year was approximately $158,647, which included an increase in personnel costs due in part to staff time spent reviewing the body-worn camera footage.

Lawrence said the study was important because it is one of the first in the country to look at the impact of these cameras in a correctional setting. He estimated that there are only 10 state prison systems that either are using body-worn cameras or are in the process of obtaining them.

“We’re not even at the point where a lot of facilities are seriously considering body-worn cameras because there’s no research available to emphasize a positive or negative of the cameras,” he said.

But he expects that to change soon.

“Currently, the use of body-worn cameras is very, very low. But I expect it to grow exponentially in the coming decade,” he said.


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