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Body-Worn Cameras, Police Violence and the Politics of Evidence: A Case of Ontological Gerrymandering



Public demands for greater police accountability, particularly in relation to violence targeting Black and Brown communities, have placed pressure on law enforcement organisations to be more transparent about officers’ actions. The implementation of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) has become a popular response. This paper examines the embrace of BWCs amidst the wider shift toward evidence-based policing by scrutinising the body of research that evaluates the effects of these technologies. Through an intertextual analysis, we illustrate how the privileging of certain forms of empiricism, particularly randomised controlled trials, evinces what Woolgar and Pawluch describe as ontological gerrymandering. In doing so, the emergent evidence base supporting BWCs as a policing tool constitutively redefines police violence into a narrow conceptualisation rooted in encounters between citizens and police. This analysis examines how these framings, by design, minimise racialised power relations and inequalities. We conclude by reflecting on the implications of these evidence-based claims, arguing that evidence can direct attention away from—and thus can buttress—the structural conditions and institutions that perpetuate police violence.
Critical Social Policy 1–20
© The Author(s) 2021
DOI: 10.1177/02610183211033923
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Body-worn cameras, police
violence and the politics of
evidence: A case of ontological
The Australian National University, Australia
University of Waterloo, Canada
The Australian National University, Australia
Public demands for greater police accountability, particularly in relation
to violence targeting Black and Brown communities, have placed pressure
on law enforcement organisations to be more transparent about offic-
ers’ actions. The implementation of police body-worn cameras (BWCs)
has become a popular response. This article examines the embrace of
BWCs amidst the wider shift toward evidence-based policing by scrutinis-
ing the body of research that evaluates the effects of these technolo-
gies. Through an intertextual analysis informed by insights from Critical
Race Theory and Science and Technology Studies, we illustrate how the
privileging of certain forms of empiricism, particularly randomised con-
trolled trials, evinces what Woolgar and Pawluch describe as ontological
gerrymandering. In doing so, the emergent evidence base supporting
BWCs as a policing tool constitutively redefines police violence into a
Corresponding author:
Kathryn Henne, The Australian National University, Canberra, 2600, Australia.
1033923CSP0010.1177/02610183211033923Critical Social PolicyHenne et al.
2 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
narrow conceptualisation rooted in encounters between citizens and
police. This analysis examines how these framings, by design, minimise
racialised power relations and inequalities. We conclude by reflecting
on the implications of these evidence-based claims, arguing that they
can direct attention away from – and thus can buttress – the structural
conditions and institutions that perpetuate police violence.
Key words
evidence-based policy, knowledge production, police body-worn
cameras, police violence, racism
Demands for radical changes in policing gained significant momentum in
2020. A wave of protests ensued across the United States and globally after
a white police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed Black man arrested
by Minneapolis police for allegedly using a counterfeit 20-dollar bill. It also
reignited outrage about police killings of other unarmed people of colour. In
response, a range of proposals emerged, including calls to defund the police
and to abolish militarised law enforcement practices, as well as recommenda-
tions to implement stronger police accountability measures.
Against this backdrop, police organisations across the United States have
implemented police body-worn cameras (BWCs) to improve police behaviour
and accountability. Other countries have followed suit, investing significantly
in the technology. In June 2020, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
addressed the issue of racialised police violence by promising to work quickly
with provinces to introduce BWCs among Canadian police organisations
(Blanchfield, 2020). Officers in jurisdictions as diverse as Australia, China,
Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay wear BWCs while on patrol.
Despite the widespread use of BWCs, debates continue regarding their merits
as a solution to police violence and whether funds might be better spent on
social programs. While advocates have framed them as a promising ‘evidence-
based’ response to demands for police reform (e.g., Ariel etal., 2017a; Cubitt
etal., 2017), critics have argued BWCs threaten individual privacy (Lippert
and Newell, 2016), broaden state control (Adams and Mastracci, 2017), and
disproportionately target racialised communities (Bud, 2016; Mateescu etal.,
The proliferation of police BWCs has been matched with a steady rise in
studies assessing the effectiveness of the technology in reducing officer mis-
conduct and improving police accountability. It reflects a trend, often referred
to as ‘evidence-based policing’, that promotes empirical evaluations of ‘what
works’ to enhance policing practice and ensure cost-effectiveness (Sherman,
Henne et al. 3
2013). Although some policymakers propose rigorous and objective research
as a mode of counteracting the shortcomings of experts and practitioners
(Pearce and Raman, 2014), evidence-based policies are not as politically
neutral as inferred. As ‘evidence is constructed and used to make decisions’
through ‘socially organised practices’ (Nichols, 2017: 605), it would be a mis-
take to assume it is resistant to influence. Governments often use evidence ‘to
transform ideology into discourse, which then provides the legitimate author-
ity to force through the intended reform agenda’ (Naughton, 2005: 47). The
joining of evidence and policy can therefore reinforce state interests. In the
case of criminal justice policy, there is not only a ‘lack of diversity among the
voices represented as experts on crime’ (Uggen and Inderbitzin, 2010: 734),
but also a ‘troubling lack of attention to power and power relations’ that
perpetuate inequalities, forms of oppression, and processes of criminalisation
(Nelund, 2014: 68).
Accordingly, scholars have questioned the scientific standards upon which
many evidence-based policies are based, indicating they are poorly equipped
to examine inequality – or, worse, are implicated in imperialistic practices.
As Kitossa (2014: 63) explains, the ‘pretensions of scientific rationalism’ can
reinforce and perpetuate ‘epistemic violence’, especially as positivistic evi-
dence is often used to disqualify claims made by colonised and minoritised
peoples. Considering these observations, we take up Science and Technology
Studies (STS) scholars’ calls to critically examine practices of evidence-based
policy through the lens of epistemic governance – which ‘suggests that the
production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed’, not simply
embraced without question (Pearce and Raman, 2014: 388). In examining
assessments of BWCs’ effectiveness, we bring concerns of epistemic gover-
nance in dialogue with longstanding critiques that mainstream criminology’s
value-neutral claims reflect the field’s complicity in enabling government
and corporate entities to advance unjust forms of domination and violence
(Young, 2012).
We explore how the emergent BWC evidence base constitutively informs
policy-related understandings of police violence, which Critical Race Theory
(CRT) scholars have traced as a ‘structural phenomenon and not simply as a
product of rogue police officers who harbour racial animus’ (Carbado, 2016:
1482). As documented in this article, many evidence-based interventions
adopt a different approach; they frame the social problem of police violence
as police misconduct, which captures law enforcement officer ‘behaviour that is
deviant, dishonest, improper, unethical, and criminal’ (Roebuck and Barker,
1974, cited in Maule, 2017: 9). In doing so, their work exemplifies a form of
ontological gerrymandering, a process that Woolgar and Pawluch (1985: 216)
describe as ‘portraying statements about conditions and behaviours as objec-
tive while relativising the definitions and claims made about them’. Accord-
ing to Woolgar and Pawluch (1985), even constructivist efforts to explain
4 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
social problems often conceptualise societal issues as if they are stable. By
missing opportunities to query how these definitions are socially contingent,
they can reinforce problematic power dynamics. Here, we argue that evalu-
ations of BWCs offer a contemporary case of ontological gerrymandering,
which is informed by the rise of evidence-based policing. Their methodologi-
cal approaches recast police violence as localised phenomena, obscuring how
interlocking oppressions contribute to this wider social problem. In failing
to shed light on structural conditions contributing to police violence, this
body of knowledge lends to policy interventions that retain an individualistic
and behavioural focus, such as anti-bias training or BWCs, rather than more
substantive changes.
Our argument proceeds as follows: First, we situate the uptake of BWCs
within a broader call for evidence-based policies and policing reform. We
then reflect on our approach and methods of analysis, explaining how we
draw on both CRT and STS to scrutinise how evidence-based claims are fash-
ioned and justified. The third section of the article details how evaluations of
BWCs’ effectiveness come to constitutively redefine police violence into an
issue of police misconduct. We conclude with a critical discussion of how this
instance of ontological gerrymandering reflects hegemonic standards of evi-
dence and how they threaten to contribute to the ongoing problem of police
Situating BWC debates and the rise of evidence-
based policing
The implementation of BWCs as devices intended to support police reform
fits within a longer trajectory of police surveillance (see Bradford etal., 2020).
While various technologies and techniques, including the use of informants,
biometric verification, and predictive policing tactics, are geared toward mon-
itoring citizens, other surveillance technologies have been deployed for the
stated purpose of tracking officers. For example, US legislation implementing
dashboard cameras responded to civil unrest following documented instances
of police racial bias during the 1980s. In-car cameras emerged as a solution by
recording whether police received consent to search stopped vehicles and are
still used to monitor police-citizen interactions during routine traffic stops
(Morton, 2018). Many contemporary police cruisers are equipped with Global
Positioning Systems (GPS) that use real-time locations to track officers and
vehicles (Mabrey, 2003), as well as microphones, affixed to officers or vehi-
cles, to ‘create an audible record of events as they happen’ (IACP, 2004: 48).
More recently, BWCs have been promoted to monitor police behaviour. In
2015, the US Department of Justice committed $23 million to BWC pilot
programs in 32 states (Yokum etal., 2019). The uptake of this technology
Henne et al. 5
by police departments has increased rapidly, with over 90 per cent of police
organisations in major US cities implementing BWCs (Leadership Confer-
ence on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, 2017).
BWC technology consists of a small battery-powered wearable camera
affixed to an officer’s uniform, typically on the upper chest or shoulder area
(though sometimes worn on their hat or sunglasses). When turned on, the
camera records audio and video footage from the vantage point of the offi-
cer wearing it, which is then stored either locally on a server managed by
the police organisation or remotely on a cloud database managed by a third-
party vendor (Hung etal., 2016). Despite minor differences in video quality
and data storage options, the technology itself is relatively standard in form
(Brustein, 2018). BWC policy and procedure, however, varies considerably
among police organisations. For instance, some organisations require officers
equipped with BWCs to keep the camera always activated, while others allow
officers to activate the camera at their discretion (Hung etal., 2016). Newer
camera models are automatically activated when officers draw a weapon or
turn on emergency lights in their cruisers, at which point the body cam foot-
age is livestreamed to police supervisors (Axon Enterprise, Inc., n.d.). At the
time of writing, no overarching legislation in North America regulates how
and when BWC footage is publicly released by police.
While the embrace of BWCs is presented as a response to public demands
for increased police accountability and transparency, it also coincides with
the rise of evidence-based policing. Evidence-based policing advocates for
policies and practices that have been investigated and assessed as effective
– typically through experimental methods. Some police researchers have
argued evidence-based reforms are the most appropriate response to critical
issues like fatal police-citizen encounters (Engel etal., 2020). Other scholars
beyond criminology have criticised evidence-based solutions on the grounds
that their design ‘imposes very stringent requirements on quality of data,
randomisation, and replication’, often to the exclusion of socially meaningful
categories of difference and contextual nuance (Willis and White, 2003, as
cited by valentine 2009: 449).
To date, most evidence-based studies of BWCs employ randomised con-
trolled trials (RCTs) designed to isolate the causal effect of the technology on
a specific outcome, such as police use of force. Many of them draw conclusions
about BWCs’ positive impacts (e.g., Ariel etal., 2017a; Demir, 2019; Suther-
land etal., 2017; White etal., 2018). Some assessments cast doubt on these
assertions (Yokum etal., 2019), characterising the effects of BWCs as unclear
(Yokum etal., 2019). Others contend that important questions remain unan-
swered, such as whether BWCs mitigate officers’ unfair treatment of citizens
across social categories of difference, such as class, ethnicity, gender, race, and
religion (Lum etal., 2015; 2019).
By focusing on the quality of evidence, criminologists involved in these
debates often fail to ask whether or how the pursuit of more or better BWC
6 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
evidence will result in reducing police violence. They also negate the short-
comings of past evidence-based policing approaches. For instance, hot spots
policing is a widely implemented set of policing tactics, which is backed
by experimental evidence suggesting it has crime deterrence effects (Sher-
man and Weisburd, 1995: 645). Critics note that these findings about hot
spots policing ‘fail to consider implications beyond the immediate crime
effects’ (Kochel, 2011: 367), including the violence that police dispropor-
tionately inflict on predominately Black and Brown communities (Gaston
etal., 2020). Acknowledging these patterns, critical criminologist Schneider
(2018) explains that the promotion of police BWCs is not about accountabil-
ity. Accountability would entail ‘an obligation to give an account of activities
within one’s ambit of responsibility’; rather, he argues, the introduction of
BWCs is about building ‘the capacity to provide a record of activities that
explains them in a creditable manner so that they appear to satisfy the rights
and obligations of accountability’ (Ericson, 1995: 137, cited in Schneider,
2018: 459). Thus, we ask: what assumptions and values are embedded in
assessments of BWCs and their impacts on policing?
Using CRT and STS to illuminate ontological
To examine the assumptions underpinning empirical assessments of BWCs’
effectiveness, we draw on CRT and STS, two fields of critical inquiry that
offer valuable insights for interrogating questions of exclusion, expertise, and
knowledge. CRT has a rich tradition of laying bare the normalisation of rac-
ism (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017), with a strong emphasis on how legal and
social forces contribute to ‘an ongoing, dialectic process that ultimately repro-
duces and transforms racial inequality’ (Gómez, 2010: 448). We also draw on
STS, particularly feminist science studies, because it provides complementary
modes of examining power exercised through ‘epistemological and ontologi-
cal assumptions’ (Foster, 2016: 129). Comprised of scholars who are diverse
in their perspective and substantive interests, feminist science studies scholar-
ship interrogates how ‘the cloak of “pure science” and objectivity continues
to surround the sciences’ (Subramaniam, 2009: 952). CRT thus provides the
‘methodological guideposts that challenge mainstream assumptions about
objective research and interpretation’ (Christian etal., 2019: 5), while STS
offers analytic tools for unpacking the epistemic politics of evidence-based
claims in practice (Pearce and Raman, 2014).
Methodologically, we carried out an in-depth analysis of a sample col-
lected through an earlier study that systematically reviewed the English
literature on police-issued surveillance technologies and police misconduct
(Henne etal., 2020). Here, we examined how evaluative research assesses the
Henne et al. 7
effectiveness of BWCs and then queried two dimensions of their claims: (1)
what comes to count as evidence and (2) how they, in turn, conceive of the
social problem addressed by BWCs. Having had read nearly 1,400 BWC
research studies for our earlier systematic review (N=1,397), we focused this
analysis on articles that assessed BWCs specifically in relation to police mis-
conduct. Notable themes emerged through the process: Most studies exam-
ined US contexts, employed RCTs in their design and used either official
complaints against police or police perceptions of behaviour as measures of
police misconduct. Despite making a range of evidentiary claims, a limited
number of studies met positivistic evidenced-based criteria (N=21). Our
examination revealed methodological inconsistencies and highlighted how
positivistic methodologies exclude important social considerations.
In keeping with other STS analyses, such as Woolgar and Lezaun (2013:
330−331), we examined how the ‘organisation of texts’ provided insight into
‘the relations of governance with respect to ordinary objects’, such as the sci-
entific variables that are central within positivistic reasoning. Employing an
intertextual analysis enabled close examination of scientific claims and the
power dynamics informing them (Henne and Shah, 2015; Nichols, 2017).
This approach facilitated a close reading of the language, rationales and ideol-
ogies employed when explaining findings across publications. We identified
patterns in the construction and explanation of evidence. The process, in turn,
illuminated how textual relationships instil and reflect acts ‘of control’ from
which ‘the issue of social power arises’ (Briggs and Bauman, 1990: 76). This
level of scrutiny enabled tracing the logics underpinning authors’ descrip-
tions of whether and how results in the sample met standards of evidence.
The intertextual analysis also aided in identifying patterns that reflected
conventions in the field of criminology, which have been characterised as
disregarding or minimising the role of race and racism in shaping under-
standings of criminality (see Henne and Shah, 2015; Van Cleve and Mayes,
2015). Like other empirical CRT approaches, we sought to understand how
‘research design is rarely race-neutral’; the ‘selection of an analytical object’,
measurement techniques, ‘the choice of method’ and ‘empirical foci are inevi-
tably shaped by political concerns’ (Christian etal., 2019: 2). Van Cleve and
Mayes (2015: 420−421), for instance, argue, ‘Criminal justice research and
statistics play a crucial role in the cultural reification of Black criminality’
because these ‘[s]eemingly race-neutral statistics’ are understood as ‘scientific
proof. . . and justification for support of practices and policies that reinforce
racial segregation and inequality’. Building on their observations, we exam-
ined how similar dynamics emerged in the framing of BWC evidence.
Accounting for textual alignments and divergences across the studies
enabled us to analyse the constitutive relationships that substantiate authors’
claims, including their research design decisions, choice of variables, modes of
assessment and linguistic characterisations. In the next sections, we detail how
8 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
claims about BWCs come to reflect a narrow gaze that is limited to particular
and often isolated factors related to police-citizen encounters. Their construc-
tions of BWCs and police violence as objects of analysis share a common ten-
dency: they overlook the socially contingent dimensions of these interactions
and erase structural factors that could – and arguably should – inform policy.
Techniques of constructing BWC evidence
Evaluating BWCs does more than measure the impact of these technologies
on policing; it entails a process of constructing objects for analysis. Positivistic
logics and criteria conceive of BWCs as independent entities, with most stud-
ies reflecting two key tendencies. First, they focus on the localised encounter
between law enforcement officers and citizens as the source for understanding
police violence, and second, they reflect a presumption that actively monitor-
ing police officers can change behaviour. This epistemological vantage point
implicates how both police violence and BWCs are constructed in the produc-
tion of evidence-based claims.
To understand these constitutive dynamics first requires considering the
mainstays of evaluation research and hierarchies of evidence. RCTs are consid-
ered effective in assessing whether a specific intervention produces an intended
effect and are common in medicine; however, the ‘lay public, and sometimes
researchers, put too much trust in RCTs over other methods of investigation’
(Deaton and Cartwright, 2018: 2). RCTs neglect ‘issues of interpretation and
meaning in the desire to tame complexity with numbers’ and fail ‘to consider
ethical questions around random assignment of potentially beneficial inter-
ventions’ (Pearce and Raman, 2014: 389) – both of which are important for
many areas of policymaking. They may advance science, but they are weak
grounds for understanding ‘what works’ because they cannot capture dynamic
social interactions (Deaton and Cartwright, 2018; see also Cartwright, 2007).
BWC evaluation research’s privileging of RCTs reflects these limitations.
Most studies analysed in our sample present their aims as assessing BWCs’
impact on actions, such as reducing use-of-force and complaints. As such,
they reinforce a presumption that BWCs’ successes or failures (e.g., to reduce
force or not reduce force) can be understood as consistent interventions, even
if the context, situation, and actors involved vary greatly. In other words,
BWCs become understood as entities used by human actors to do policing
in methodical and predictable ways, rendering BWC technology as a thing
abstracted from context. This depiction emerges in sharp contrast to STS
approaches, which would acknowledge an object, including BWCs, as part of
entangled relationships (Henne and Harb, 2020; Woolgar and Lezaun, 2013).
The problematic dimensions of these framings become evident when
scrutinising what considerations are removed when making empirical assess-
Henne et al. 9
ments that align with objective criteria. To illustrate, let us look more closely
at an exemplar of these analyses: Ariel and colleagues (2017a: 303) claim
that BWCs reduce complaints against police and can therefore aid in improv-
ing police legitimacy. They reason that the presence of BWCs conveys to
everyone involved in a police-citizen interaction that they are being recorded;
this knowledge – and the subsequent potential that one’s behaviour can later
be scrutinised – improves the behaviour of all parties. The authors suggest
this dynamic reduces complaints made against police in two ways: first,
BWCs reduce legitimate complaints against police by serving as a catalyst for
improved police behaviour, and, second, BWCs dissuade illegitimate com-
plaints from citizens who want to ‘make trouble’ (Ariel etal., 2017a: 302).
While this example captures what is described as the ‘civilising effect’ of
BWCs (see Headley etal., 2017), it departs from observations made through
different modes of inquiry. Others have documented how BWC footage,
especially when combined with officer accounts of events, often undermines
the credibility of citizen narratives about police violence (Brucato, 2015;
Russell-Brown, 2016). By buttressing police explanations, BWCs can oper-
ate as repressive tools against citizens seeking to make claims against law
enforcement officers (Brucato, 2015). Further, RCTs negate how time can
shift behaviour changes that BWCs may initially spark. As police become
more accustomed to BWCs and being recorded, they may adapt their actions,
which is a potential longitudinal development that exceeds the scope of the
RCTs in our sample. Instead, RCTs, by design, divorce their analytic assess-
ments from lived realities of citizen-police encounters, including the social
conditions and inequalities that inform them (Roussell etal., 2017). Their
narrow focus on the specific ‘act’ and ‘effect’ results in research that does not
capture structural or relational considerations. The civilising effect can thus
be asserted as an evidence-based finding precisely because the methodology
used disregards the on-the-ground relationships of which these technologies
become a part.
Although RCT research is often upheld as the gold standard of evidence
(Cartwright, 2007), many results interpreted as supporting BWCs as a police
reform fail to meet accepted standards of evaluation; that is, they do not
adhere to their own guiding methodological principles. Adherence to strict
positivistic criteria is the very mechanism that allows positivistic researchers
to assert claims as evidence. When studies deviate from their own set criteria,
they – by their own definition – jeopardise the credibility of their results.
While the nature of these limitations varied across the studies, inconsisten-
cies in the definition of officer misconduct was a clear pattern. For example,
many studies include the outcome measure of ‘police use of force’ or ‘official
citizen complaints against the police’. Relying on official citizen complaints
is often problematic, though, as citizens are less likely to come forward with
complaints against law enforcement officers when there are tenuous police-
10 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
community relationships (Gascón and Roussell, 2019; Kappeler etal.,1992).
Studies in our sample also used police perceptions of their own behaviour as
a variable for assessing police misconduct (e.g., Goetschel and Peha, 2017),
which has long been understood as misleading because officers tend to under-
estimate the prevalence of their own misconduct (Hader and Snortum, 1975).
This measure not only reinscribes police misconduct as the primary issue of
concern, but it also lends to conservative, and likely skewed, estimates of
individual behaviour.
Another foundational challenge for RCTs that emerges across the studies
analysed is maintaining the necessary conditions of their experiment, which
require controlled separation of the experimental groups under study (e.g.,
officers with BWCs and officers without BWCs) and accounting for all pos-
sible variables that may influence study results (e.g., officer age, rank). Study-
ing interactions in real-life settings, however, is unpredictable. For example,
it is difficult to verify whether officers in experiments appropriately activate
their BWCs because of two key issues: (1) not knowing for sure whether offi-
cers had their BWCs turned on and (2) keeping officers assigned to wear
BWCs separate from those assigned not to wear BWCs during their encoun-
ters with citizens. From an evaluative stance, the potential co-mingling of
officers wearing BWCs and officers not wearing BWCs during an experiment
prompts questions about whether changes in officer-citizen encounters are
due to the technology or to some other factor – a concern most authors did
Many studies inconsistently adhered to accepted statistical logics. At
times, authors recognised this problem, citing issues with statistical power
due to low incident rates (e.g., White etal., 2018). Others make no note of
the statistical issues afflicting their experiments,2 even though rigour is a
stated justification for RCTs. For instance, a US-based study found no sig-
nificant difference in the number of complaints received by officers wear-
ing BWCs compared to officers not wearing BWCs during their one-year
experiment (Ariel etal., 2015). The authors nonetheless claim that BWCs
reduce officer complaints because of a significant drop across all complaints
(that is, for both officers wearing and not wearing BWCs) during the experi-
mental period compared to the overall number of complaints received the
year prior to BWCs being implemented. Their explanation: BWCs improve
law enforcement behaviour even for officers who observe others wearing the
cameras. They assert a civilising effect despite not conforming to expecta-
tions of RCTs3. Further, the methods used are not attuned to broader societal
developments that may have influenced their results. For example, the study
took place from January to December 2012, during which the death of Tray-
von Martin, an unarmed Black adolescent killed by a white Florida resident,
renewed public outrage around issues of racial justice, including police vio-
lence toward Black persons. The study disregards how this climate of police
Henne et al. 11
scrutiny could affect law enforcement officers’ actions because such consider-
ations exceed the scope of its empirical gaze.
The impact of these inadequacies is compounded when multiple articles
from the same authors or a subset of authors feature duplicate data and find-
ings, which emerged in our final sample.4 Consider, for instance, early BWC
research conducted in Rialto, California (Ariel and Farrar, 2012). The Rialto
study, which employs RCT methodology to assess the impact of BWCs on
use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints, is widely cited. The authors
have published many follow-up articles supporting the use of BWCs, which
are based on findings from the original dataset (e.g., Ariel etal. 2015; Ariel
et al., 2017b; Sutherland et al., 2017). While often done for comparative
purposes, the repetition of data and findings reinforces claims already made,
amplifying earlier conclusions as if they are seemingly more valid.
In response to the observed limitations of experimental research, some
proponents of evidence-based policing have begun to argue that RCTs are
too constrictive and that incorporating diverse methodologies would provide
more robust evaluations (Brown etal., 2018). Some recent scholarship dem-
onstrates the importance of highlighting the conditions that inform police
misconduct, including the social position of persons involved and the dura-
tion of police-citizen encounters (e.g., Willits and Makin, 2018). But is
methodological tinkering enough when faced with the challenge of ontologi-
cal gerrymandering?
Embracing empirical approaches that do not disrupt these constructions of
police misconduct and BWCs threatens to replicate processes of knowledge pro-
duction that feminist science studies scholars have characterised as reductionist
(Haraway, 1988; Harding, 2015). As Haraway (1988: 580) explains, ‘versions
of objectivity’ that work in ‘the service of hierarchical and positivist orderings of
what can count as knowledge’ posit dangerous simplifications. In the next sec-
tion, we discuss how the reductionism of the BWC evidence base can be under-
stood as a form of epistemic violence. It aids in sustaining what CRT scholars
describe as the ‘normal science’ of racism, which is ‘difficult to address or cure
because it is not acknowledged’ (Delgado and Stefancic, 2017: 8).
Imagining police violence through evidence
The presumption that RCTs are objective prompts questions that extend
beyond research methodology to concerns of ethics. For experimental designs
to reduce police violence to an interpersonal encounter they require a form of
abstraction that creates distance from embodied experience (Pascale, 2010).
By design, they erase contextual elements to isolate causal relationships
between constructed variables. In doing so, these methodological techniques
re-imagine the dynamic relations of police violence through a constrained set
12 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
of ontological possibilities in which the police, citizens, and technologies are
understood as distinct and autonomous actors.
Feminist science studies scholars offer important insights into how power
operates in and through this kind of selective gaze. For Haraway (1988: 585),
vision ‘is always a question of the power to see – and perhaps of the violence
implicit in our visualising practices’. Some researchers have queried the role
of vision in shaping perceptions of BWCs and their value. Brucato (2015:
470), for example, attends to how BWC footage is often understood as objec-
tive data, even though it is ‘conditioned by the point-of-view from which the
documentation is captured’. Seen through an STS lens, BWCs and the data
they generate emerge as constitutive of technosocial relations, which exceed
epistemological perspectives that render ‘events and phenomena’ as ‘singular,
isolated moments’ (Pascale, 2010: 161). Seeing policing dynamics through
the gaze of RCTs minimises their complexity; it negates the socio-historical
conditions in which these relationships manifest in lived encounters.
The gaze through which specific events are interpreted cannot be divorced
from the inequalities that inform crime, crime control practices, and police
violence (Henne and Shah, 2016). Scrutinising what becomes recognised and
valued as objectivity provides a window to understanding the power dynam-
ics that shape knowledge, its mobilisation and its impact (Harding, 2015).
The privileging of RCTs reifies a form of vision that it is ‘honed. . . to dis-
tance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of
unfettered power’ and is ‘tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism and male
supremacy’ (Haraway, 1988: 581). One such manifestation of this is how the
cloak of neutrality provided by experimental methodology can deflect the
potential for public harm5. In our sample, studies funded by industry partners
with vested interests in the outcomes of assessments present BWCs as effec-
tive tools for certain police-related tasks, such as improving the accuracy of
report-writing among officers (Dawes etal., 2015).6 Although these partner-
ships are disclosed, transparency does not address the ethical concerns at hand,
which are how these corporate funding relationships may impact the research,
not whether they are accredited after the fact (see Goldberg, 2019).
Situating BWC evidence in longer histories of research-informed crime
policy aids in unveiling racialised contours. Muhammad (2010) has traced
how racism has been central to the emergence of US crime statistics and anal-
ysis, which took shape after the Civil War as more Black persons migrated
to Northern cities. Informed by the racial ideologies of the time, their focus
on ‘urban’ (Black) crime drew upon research using crime statistics to explain
crime as rooted in Black racial inferiority. Scholars have since drawn simi-
lar links to how contemporary criminological practice has contributed to
the subjugation of racialised groups – for example, the use of statistic-based
studies to support predictive crime control strategies, which are known
to disproportionately target urban communities of colour (Van Cleve and
Henne et al. 13
Mayes, 2015). Even studies concerned with race and racism still tend to cast
‘whiteness as the norm’ but in a way that bias is often ‘masked through so-
called objective (white) methods’ (Henne and Shah, 2015: 116−117). Rac-
ism does not operate simply through claims made about racialised groups in
criminological studies; it also manifests when its role in shaping crimino-
logical concerns is obscured.
The emergent BWC evidence base does not escape this critique. The
design of these studies posits evaluations that negate racialised power dynam-
ics informing calls for greater police accountability. One such example is
research by White and colleagues (2018) on the impact of BWCs on vio-
lence during police-citizen encounters. While they acknowledge ‘a persistent
undercurrent of racial tension’ in contemporary policing, their methodology
does not account for it (White etal., 2018: 66). Further, they conclude that
BWCs have a positive effect on police-citizen encounters since use-of-force
incidents and citizen complaints seem to drop after the implementation of
BWC technology, even though this finding is not statistically significant.
While this work reflects an understandable desire to isolate the impact of
BWCs, their claims demonstrate how positivistic techniques reflect an active
choice in terms of deciding what contours of police violence become both
visible and known as well as invisible and unknown. As Glasbeek and col-
leagues (2020: 339) argue, what BWCs ‘make visible may be, in the end, less
important to the ongoing struggle against racialised policing than what they
do not see’. These technologies, as well as the evidence-based methods used
to evaluate them, are not equipped to attend to the ‘deeply racialised nature
of the relationship between the surveillance state and its subject populations’
(Glasbeek etal., 2020: 339). The influence of vision related to BWCs is there-
fore twofold: on the one hand, the devices capture events through a narrow
lens that reflects a law enforcement officer’s perspective of encounters; on the
other, the evidence base obfuscates how racism operates in and through police
violence by not capturing it.
While evaluative studies of BWCs may appear race-neutral because they
seem objective, they are far from it (see also Shore, 2020). They reflect colour-
blind practices that either minimise or erase racial inequality from police-
citizen interactions. As Omi and Winant (2015: 14) warn, the promotion
of such individualism often lends to the ‘erasure of race’, which is itself a
form of ‘racial ideology’ that operates hegemonically. The assessments in the
BWC research analysed here fail to capture how police violence is entangled
with interlocking systems of domination – even as they assert themselves as
truth through evidence-based claims. The workings of racism, as manifest in
our sample, inform their epistemic contours. By negating the racialised con-
tours of violence, most BWC studies do not question or query the oppressive
dimensions of policing in practice, limiting their applicability in terms of
addressing the harms perpetuated by these institutions. In other words, the
14 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
evidence actively whitewashes policing, a form of epistemic violence that can
carry over into policing recommendations. We conclude by considering how
these reductionist constructions can have grave consequences for policy and
practice, particularly for racialised communities.
In illustrating how the BWC evidence base imagines and constructs police
violence as a localised encounter, our analysis shows that evaluations of
BWCs constitute a distinct form of ontological gerrymandering (Woolgar
and Pawluch, 1985). Specifically, attempts to scientifically evaluate BWCs
dismiss how police violence is etched and shaped by interlocking oppressions
– thus, redefining the policy problem as police misconduct. As such, the
insights gleaned through this analysis mark a clear departure from crimino-
logical reviews of police BWCs, which suggest the technology is innovative
and promising (Cubitt etal., 2017) or state there is not yet enough evidence
to make an assessment (Lum etal., 2019).
Our findings point to an important and overlooked concern in BWC
debates: the hegemonic influence of accepted gold standards of evaluation,
namely RCTs. It manifests here in two interrelated ways: (1) in driving the
forms of knowledge valued as appropriate for evidence-based policy and (2)
in shaping the contours of the social problem addressed by BWCs. Taken
together, they demonstrate not only how RCTs valorise specific incidents
between law enforcement, citizens, and BWCs as the grounds of evidence,
but also how these imaginings of police violence come to reinforce racialised
power relations by not attending to them.
As criminal justice policy has life and death consequences, the glaring
absence of critical discussion about epistemic governance in relation to evi-
dence-based policing is a significant concern. Against the backdrop of global
protests about police violence, we would be remiss not to address how crimi-
nological evidence embodies foundational concerns of how epistemic power
and authority can sustain, rather than counter, violence. According to Black
criminologist Russell-Brown (2016: 213), the proposition of BWCs as a solu-
tion to police violence is indicative of how policy partnerships discredit ‘Black
claims of state violence’. The evidence base, valued for its scientific basis,
becomes a stand-in for community voices that often articulate other propos-
als, such as redirecting resources to community-led initiatives and abolition-
ist responses to wider inequalities (see McDowell and Fernandez, 2018). The
BWC evidence base also leaves the structural problems that surveillance tech-
nologies are intended to respond to out of their frame and out of the purview of
policy reforms. In doing so, as the gaze of research carries over into policy and
practice, it forecloses the possibility of more radical and institutional reforms
Henne et al. 15
to systemic issues. In short, the BWC evidence can undermine attempts to
hold the state to account for its complicity in structures of violence.
The reliance on narrowly constructed evidence does more than fail to
challenge power relations underpinning racialised violence. It can buttress
institutions responsible for such harms, as criminal justice policy premised
on scientific objectivity can contribute to powerful, albeit misguided, rhet-
oric that police violence is being addressed effectively through technologi-
cal solutions. Such patterns have already emerged in practice: Canadian and
US police departments have framed BWCs as supporting checks and bal-
ances, civility, and transparency (Bud, 2016) even as they augment these
technologies in ways that suggest alternative aims – such as, for example,
the recent push to pair BWCs with facial recognition technology, which
civil society organisations have framed as ‘transform[ing] a tool intended to
improve police accountability into a mass biometric surveillance network’
(Tsukayama, 2019: para. 7).
The BWC evidence base is complicit in the expansion of police power,
even if it is not intended by individual researchers; it bolsters calls to enhance
law enforcement’s surveillance capacity, which disproportionately targets
Black and Brown communities (Maynard, 2017). This brings the real-world
consequences of ontological gerrymandering into stark relief: the whitewash-
ing of police violence through experimental modes of assessment can enable
racist practices to persist and adapt under the mantle of reform. They evince
CRT scholars and critical criminologists’ longstanding concerns that value-
neutral social science can work in the service of fortifying racist systems of
oppression by not challenging them.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by the
Canada Research Chairs program (ID 231559), Ontario Graduate Scholarship
program, and the Australian National University Futures scheme.
1. This is understandable, especially in large-scale studies, given the dynamic
nature of policing; however, it points to the limitations of using these method-
2. For example, Gaub and colleagues (2016) report statistically significant group
differences at p<.10, though the conventionally accepted level of significance in
social science research is an alpha level of .05 or lower.
3. By this, we refer to the practice of combining effects for treatment and control
groups and still making a causal claim based on the intervention (Field, 2009).
4. Six studies included duplicate sets of data and findings (with five presenting new
16 Critical Social Policy 00(0)
5. As was the case when deep partnerships between the pharmaceutical industry
and health care providers contributed to the opioid crisis (Goldberg, 2019).
6. TASER International Inc., now Axon (and its subsidiary Vievu), funded the
study. As of 2018, the company held 43 of the 54 active BWC contracts in the
United States (Brustein, 2018). Four of the five study authors were employees of
Axon, and two authors were investors at the time of publication.
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Author biographies
Kathryn Henne is a Professor at RegNet, the School of Regulation and Global Governance
Australian National University (ANU), and an Honorary Professor in the College of Heath
Solutions at Arizona State University. She received funding from the Canada Research Chairs
Program and the ANU Futures Scheme to support this research.
Krystle Shore is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Waterloo. She received an
Ontario Graduate Scholarship, which supported this research.
Jenna Imad Harb is a PhD candidate in the interdisciplinary Regulation and Governance
program at the Australian National University.
... on the now widespread visualization of policing practices. Whether analyzed from the bottom up, through practices like cop-watching (e.g., Brucato 2015Brucato , 2016Bock 2016) and the ensuing production of "counterpublics" that can challenge police narratives (e.g., Antony and Thomas 2010;Hill 2018;Richardson 2020), or through state-based visualization tactics, such as body-worn cameras that make claims to police accountability (see, e.g., Newell 2020) but reproduce surveillance logics and a "racialized way of seeing" (Beutin 2017;see, too, Glasbeek, Alam, and Roots 2020;Henne, Shore, and Harb 2022), we have been drawn into debates about the costs and benefits of "policing on camera" (Sandhu and Haggerty 2017). To break this impasse, and heeding Monahan's (2021) call to unsettle transparency as a metric and a goal, I outline a "ghost methodology" for surveillance studies that aims to decentre a preoccupation with visibility in favour of a more nuanced appreciation of haunting and absence. ...
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This paper explores the racial dimensions of police body-worn cameras (BWCs) in Canada and the contested politics of seeing that they raise. By drawing on interview data with four Canadian police services and analyzing them through the work of anti-racist and anti-colonialist scholars, we argue that BWCs are engaged in the act of not-seeing the state violence that makes racialized communities vulnerable to police brutality in the first place. To include the politics of not-seeing in the story of BWCs changes our understandings of policing’s new visibility and the potential promise of “policing on camera.”
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Body-worn cameras (BWCs) often emerge as technologies that can be used in the service of transparency, accountability, and reform. Accordingly, the framing of these devices presents them as objects that can impact social dynamics. However, as scholars of surveillance and science and technology studies (STS) remind us, such objects are not fixed or static entities. Instead, they come into being through sociotechnical entanglements. This chapter extends analytic insights from STS by reconsidering common descriptions of BWCs and their repercussions in wider debates. It discusses representations of BWCs and how STS reflections on the ontological turn challenge these characterizations, doing so by querying them as objects that become enacted in and through practice. We illustrate how BWCs come into being through an analysis of the 2016 killing of Paul O’Neal, an unarmed 18-year old Black man, by Chicago police officers. By adapting the situated approach employed by Woolgar and Lezaun, the case reveals how BWCs cannot be separated from the inequitable and violent power relationships that are part of their enactment. The chapter concludes with a reflection on how this rethinking of politics through ontology has potentially profound implications for discussions of accountability, discretion, and privacy.
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