Police body cameras could lead to more drug arrests, says Baker Institute expert


Jeff Falk

Police body cameras could lead to more drug arrests, says Baker Institute expert

HOUSTON — (Aug. 2, 2019) – Police body cameras could lead officers to make more arrests for minor offenses like drug possession, according to a drug policy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 60% of local police departments and 49% of sheriffs’ offices had fully implemented body-worn cameras by 2016. In cases of excessive use of force, this additional oversight is generally welcomed by the public, but there is another concern body camera advocates may not have considered.

“To the extent that the camera’s surveillance is used to censure officers for not taking action, it may also have the effect of encouraging officers to make self-protecting arrests that they could have let slide — an outcome likely to be viewed less favorably by communities that feel overpoliced,” said Katharine Neill Harris, the Alfred C. Glassell, III, Fellow in Drug Policy at the institute.

“Drug possession cases, which compared to most other types of cases are less likely to have a victim and more likely to have hard evidence of a law being broken, could be especially impacted by changes in officer discretion at the point of arrest,” Neill Harris wrote in a new post for the redesigned Baker Institute blog that was unveiled this summer, http://blog.bakerinstitute.org.

Neill Harris is available to discuss the issue with the news media.

“Drug possession arrests also disproportionately impact the same communities of color that have advocated most strongly for body cameras as a mechanism to address overpolicing in their neighborhoods,” Neill Harris wrote. “Any increase in such arrests then, even a small one, would run counter to the objectives of these communities, making the question of whether there is a relationship between body-worn cameras and drug arrests an important one.”

Like all areas of body-camera research, the few studies that exist present conflicting evidence regarding whether camera-wearing officers make more arrests than officers without cameras, Neill Harris said. “No studies of which I am aware look specifically at the relationship between body cameras and likelihood of making a drug arrest,” she wrote. “In my own conversations with officers, they have expressed that their awareness of the cameras and their knowledge that the footage could be reviewed by superior officers can make them feel pressured to take official action on calls that previously they would have handled through informal channels.”

This pressure can be good under certain circumstances; for example, the camera’s presence might make some officers more likely to treat domestic violence calls seriously and make an arrest or take other proactive measures, Neill Harris said. “But in other instances, such as drug possession cases, limits on officer discretion may result in arrests that the public finds undesirable and which do little to improve public safety,” she wrote.

“To ensure that body-worn camera-equipped officers don’t feel like they have to make a drug arrest to avoid disciplinary action, a relatively simple fix would be to state explicitly in departmental policy that officers have the discretion to decline arrests in low-level drug possession cases, as they already have for some low-level misdemeanors,” Neill Harris wrote.


The Baker Institute has a radio and television studio available for media who want to schedule an interview with Neill Harris. For more information, contact Jeff Falk, associate director of national media relations at Rice, at jfalk@rice.edu or 713-348-6775.

Related materials:

Blog post: http://blog.bakerinstitute.org/2019/07/31/could-police-body-cameras-lead-to-more-drug-arrests

Neill Harris bio: http://bakerinstitute.org/experts/katharine-neill

Follow the Baker Institute via Twitter @BakerInstitute.

Follow the Drug Policy Program via Twitter @BakerDrugPolicy.

Follow Rice News and Media Relations via Twitter @RiceUNews. 

Founded in 1993, Rice University’s Baker Institute ranks among the top three university-affiliated think tanks in the world. As a premier nonpartisan think tank, the institute conducts research on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy. The institute’s strong track record of achievement reflects the work of its endowed fellows, Rice University faculty scholars and staff, coupled with its outreach to the Rice student body through fellow-taught classes — including a public policy course — and student leadership and internship programs. Learn more about the institute at www.bakerinstitute.org or on the institute’s blog, http://blog.bakerinstitute.org.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.