Law enforcement agencies, community advocates and policymakers hope that the widespread adoption of police bodycams will alleviate racial disparities and reduce misconduct and use of force. Racial justice has been central to this conversation, but gender justice has not. This essay takes an intersectional, gendered look at bodycam policies, challenging the assumption that officers will act more fairly when they know they are being recorded. Bodycam policies typically ensure that cameras are turned off during investigations of gendered crimes such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and sex work or sex trafficking. Thus women, sex workers, and gender-nonconforming people may be disproportionately excluded from any benefits of bodycam surveillance. But privacy and dignity interests, as well as investigatory realities, preclude the indiscriminate recording of every police-citizen interaction. More importantly, video recording will not promote accountability unless the recorded behavior is meaningfully prohibited. Unfortunately, many of the abusive practices that arise in gendered investigations are allowed by law, policy, or custom. Bodycams can promote accountability only where they are accompanied by an institutional commitment to fair and professional policing.
The widespread adoption of body-worn cameras by police departments across the country promises outcomes that appeal to a broad spectrum of stakeholders, ranging from Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Police Executive Research Forum. They hope that the presence of body-worn cameras (“bodycams”) will improve the behavior of police officers and of people who interact with them. The idea is that the routine recording of police-citizen interactions will encourage compliance with departmental rules and policies, reduce misconduct and unnecessary use of force, ensure accountability, facilitate criminal and disciplinary investigations, and advance racial justice. These hopes are based on the expectation that officers will behave better when they know that they are being watched (see, e.g., Stanley 2015; Katz 2015; Yokum, Ravishankar, and Coppock 2017).
Images can catalyze change. Since 2014, a series of high-profile videos and livestreams of killings and other troubling police-citizen interactions have drawn unprecedented public and governmental attention to racial profiling and police brutality—long-standing systemic problems that Black, Indigenous, and other non-White communities have protested for decades. At the same time, community hopes that images of police misconduct might lead to meaningful accountability have not generally been realized. Whether videos are taken by citizen witnesses or police dashcams or bodycams, footage showing unlawful police behavior has rarely resulted in criminal conviction. In 2018, though, for the first time in more than fifty years, a Chicago police officer was convicted of murder for an on-duty killing—largely because police dashcam videos belied the story told by police officers who had witnessed the killing (Crepeau et al. 2018).
Racial justice has been central to discourse about the costs and benefits of bodycams, as it has been to other conversations about police reform. Gender, however, has been largely overlooked. In this essay, we reconsider bodycam policy through an intersectionally gendered lens, asking: What might we learn about bodycam policy, if gender were taken into account? And what might a gendered view of bodycam policy reveal about the promise and limitations of police reform more generally? The first part of this essay shows that existing bodycam policies and best-practice recommendations ensure that cameras will often be turned off when the person interacting with the police officer is a non-White woman or a gender-nonconforming person. The second part notes that the situations in which bodycams are likely to be turned off are notorious sites of gender bias in policing: investigations of domestic violence; sexual assault and abuse; and sex work or sex trafficking. The third part uses the limitations of bodycam policy reform to illuminate broader challenges to the project of policing reform. The gender biases that plague such investigations could not be solved by simply requiring that cameras be activated in these situations: routine video recording of such interactions might be both impractical and undesirable. The deeper challenge is that many of these abusive or unjust policing practices are functionally permitted. Where the officer behaviors being recorded are allowed by law or authorized by departmental policy or custom, video recording is unlikely to result in meaningful accountability. The gendered injustices revealed in this essay, like the racial injustice that has more typically been the focus of conversations about policing reform, will require a more systemic and institutional response.
While the parameters of these more fundamental institutional and law reforms lie beyond the scope of this essay, we conclude with a few recommendations about how best to alleviate the immediate gender justice concerns we raise about bodycam surveillance. To mitigate the harms and inequities of current bodycam policies, police departments could and should design or amend their bodycam policies in consultation with the groups most affected by the gendered limitations of bodycam surveillance: sex workers, survivors of sexual and domestic violence, and gender-nonconforming people. Police departments should solicit direct community input on their bodycam policies through public meetings, private submissions, and/or community surveys about the situations in which bodycams should and should not be activated. Furthermore, police departments could share bodycam footage with independent auditors to examine their own policing practices for fairness, courtesy, procedural justice, and compliance with criminal laws, antidiscrimination rules, and departmental policies. As with all other criminal justice reforms, the effects of bodycam policy on vulnerable stakeholders must be taken into account if bodycams are to fulfil their promise to advance civil rights through accountability.
The limitations of bodycams identified in this essay may well generalize to the racial injustice that has been a central focus of police reform. Gender and masculinities interact with racial bias in policing in ways that academics in many fields are only beginning to unpack (see, e.g., Harris 2010; Poteat, Kimmel, and Wilchins 2011). By offering a critical, intersectional gender perspective on the design and effects of bodycam policy, this essay offers two contributions to the broader discourse on police accountability. First, it illuminates important ways that women and gender-nonconforming people (who are likely to be non-White) have been overlooked in the design and implementation of bodycam policies specifically, and in discourses of police reform more generally. Second, it illuminates systemic barriers to the accountability that bodycam advocates hope for, suggesting that bodycams may produce accountability only where they are accompanied by an institutional commitment to racial and gender equity in policing practice. These insights, in turn, might guide subsequent research and action regarding how best to create the circumstances in which police accountability mechanisms could be expected to advance public safety and equal justice.
Gendered Crime and Bodycam Rules
Police leaders, policing organizations, and civil liberties advocates who hope for the investigative, accountability, and fairness benefits of bodycams nonetheless acknowledge that indiscriminate recording of police-citizen interactions might jeopardize legitimate privacy interests of police officers, criminal suspects, and civilians such as victims or witnesses. As a result, guidelines issued by police and civil liberties organizations, as well as bodycam policies adopted by individual police departments, typically require or permit that bodycams be turned off in the following three situations (among others): in private homes; when interacting with minors or other victims of crime; and while officers are undercover or are interacting with a confidential informant (see, e.g., LAPD 2015; Chicago PD 2018; Miller, Toliver, and PERF 2014; ACLU 2015; IACP 2014; Fan 2016). These are all circumstances in which police officers are more likely to interact with those who are marginalized by gender inequality and gender violence: women, gender-nonconforming people, and/or sex workers.
Most people arrested by police are male (e.g., in 2015, about 73 percent of all arrests involved men or boys1), but interactions with women, children, and gender-nonconforming people are also quite common. More than one quarter of all adults arrested every year are women. Girls make up more than 29 percent of those who are arrested at age seventeen or younger (FBI 2015). Over one million girls and women are arrested each year in the United States.
Moreover, men and women are arrested for distinct kinds of offenses, implicating distinct policy considerations. For most criminal offenses, a majority of persons arrested are men or boys. The only exception is prostitution, for which a majority of persons arrested—at least 60 percent—are women or girls (FBI 2015).2 Many of the men and boys who are arrested for prostitution are gender-nonconforming or are perceived to be gender-nonconforming (James et al. 2016).
Police officers interact with women and gender-nonconforming people not only as suspects, but also as victims or witnesses. While victimization rates for violent crimes are roughly equal for men and women, a majority of victims of domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual victimization, and sex trafficking are women or girls (Truman and Morgan 2015: 13; Catalano et al. 2009; Rieger 2007).
Most violent and property crimes fit the male-perpetrator, male-victim pattern, and are likely to be influenced by conventional expectations of masculine gender performance (Poteat, Kimmel, and Wilchins 2011; Harris 2000). The crimes that diverge from this pattern are the ones that are most often subjected to critical gender analysis. This essay will use gendered crimes as a shorthand for crimes related to domestic violence, sexual victimization, and prostitution, even as its authors recognize that gender-role expectations probably affect practically all criminal behaviors, as well as criminal justice responses to them.
When bodycam rules or guidelines allow or require cameras to be turned off inside private homes or when dealing with minors, they trace the privacy interests in home and family that have traditionally been recognized in criminal and family law. Feminist theorists have long critiqued the gendered construction of privacy, noting that legal recognition of privacy interests in the home and family has tended systematically to insulate cisgender men against accountability for violence against women and children (see, e.g., Siegel 1996; Suk 2006). For example, men’s expectations of privacy in the home and family formed the basis for statutes and judge-made rules that blocked criminal and civil accountability for men’s violence against their partners and children, and for marital rape (Siegel 1996).
Along the same lines, bodycam rules accommodate privacy interests in the home and family, as well as the investigative demands of undercover work, in ways that will predictably result in cameras being turned off while officers are investigating domestic violence or sexual victimization, or are interacting with sex workers. Such protections as bodycams might offer, then, are likely to bypass many of the situations in which women, children, and gender-nonconforming people are most vulnerable to gendered violence.
Moreover, while gender injustice is less salient in contemporary political conversations about policing than racial injustice is, they are not independent concerns. Racism intersects with heterosexism and gender inequality in ways that can structure the vulnerability of children, women, and gender-nonconforming people to violence. Because many groups of non-White women are exposed to gendered crimes at higher rates than Whites (Breiding et al. 2014; Human Rights Campaign 2019),3 the people whose interactions with police go unrecorded will disproportionately be women, children, and gender-nonconforming persons who are non-White.
Although the adoption of bodycams is designed to promote racial justice, it does not seem that bodycam rules and best practices have been designed to account for the ways that conventional gendered understandings of privacy can impede investigation and accountability for gendered crimes. The bodycam rules are not designed to create impunity for gender violence, and it is not necessarily clear that the rules themselves should be changed. For instance, it is quite reasonable that undercover officers should not wear bodycams that would betray their identity. We do not recommend, either, that bodycams be used indiscriminately to record investigations of domestic violence, sexual assault, prostitution, or sex trafficking. It seems very likely that many victims, witnesses, and persons suspected of such crimes might prefer not to be recorded, and might feel exposed or traumatized by being recorded against their will.4 Many bodycam policies permit or require officers to deactivate video recording on the request of a victim or a person present in a private home (Chicago Police Department, Los Angeles Police Department). Considerations of justice and transparency might operate differently with respect to the privacy interests of suspected perpetrators and those of victims (although, in practice, the distinction between these two roles may not be immediately obvious to officers attending on a domestic violence call: Coker 2001). Furthermore, the interests and priorities of victims of domestic violence do not necessarily align with those of police and prosecutors (Coker 2001; Nash 2005; Suk 2006). For example, routine video recording of domestic violence calls, which was supported by more than three quarters of officers in a recent survey (Newell and Greidanus 2017: 19), could be used as evidence to continue a prosecution when a victim does not believe that prosecution will enhance her safety.
As they stand, though, bodycam rules and best practices that accommodate legitimate investigative demands and broadly held cultural notions about privacy in the home, family, and body will functionally exempt investigations of gendered crimes from otherwise-mandatory video surveillance. This exemption warrants particular concern because such investigations are notorious sites of gender disparity and discrimination in policing (USDOJ 2016; PERF 2012). In other words, to the degree that bodycams can alleviate racial injustice, they will exclude women and gender-nonconforming people from those protections. Policy neglect of these considerations reveals the marginality of women and gender-nonconforming people in the broader conversation about police reform. The following section identifies a few ways in which police responses to gendered crimes have been shown to exacerbate gender inequality—highlighting the fact that it is no small oversight to ignore the potential for gendered abuses by police.
Gendered Injustice in Policing: Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Sex Work
Gender bias and discrimination permeate the policing of gendered crimes in the United States. As recently as 2016, the US Department of Justice (USDOJ 2016: 3) identified a number of ways that gender bias could influence police investigations, including “misclassifying or underreporting sexual assault or domestic violence cases, or inappropriately concluding that sexual assault cases are unfounded; failing to test sexual assault kits; interrogating rather than interviewing victims and witnesses; treating domestic violence as a family matter rather than a crime; failing to enforce protection orders; or failing to treat same-sex domestic violence as a crime.”
When responding to domestic violence calls, gender biases can result in officers accepting the reassurances of male abusers that there is no problem despite the pleas and physical injuries of their victims, and failing to press charges despite evidence of physical violence against the abusers’ wives and children (Coker 2001; Suk 2006). Too frequently, police officers are reported to have urged women to reconcile with their abusers rather than facilitating arrests and charges at the request of the abused (Goodmark 2011; Schneider 2000; Sack 2004; Siegel 1996).
In response to a well-publicized 1992 experiment that found a decrease in homicides when police made an arrest in response to domestic violence calls for service (Sherman et al. 1992), many states and police departments introduced mandatory arrest policies requiring that officers must make an arrest every time they find evidence that domestic violence may have occurred. Mandatory arrest policies are designed to protect public safety by initiating criminal proceedings regardless of the victim’s wishes, to prevent the abuser from intimidating the victim into recanting. While this may be a laudable goal, such policies can also compromise the autonomy of a victim who perceives no further danger from the partner, who wants to end the abuse while continuing the relationship, or who believes that further criminal justice involvement will increase the danger (Coker 2001; Suk 2006). Furthermore, mandatory arrest policies may be associated with increased arrests of women who are victims of domestic violence (Coker 2001; Miller 2001; Rajan and McCloskey 2007). Moreover, because arrests for domestic violence are more common in low-income non-White families, victims who interact with police are disproportionately non-White (Suk 2009: 45). The consequences of mandatory arrest policies may be borne disproportionately by African American women, who are likely to be viewed as more masculine and less worthy of protection, compared to white women (Goff, Thomas, and Jackson: 2008). Black women may also be more likely to fight back when beaten by a partner, and are more likely to be arrested for doing so (West 2007). Transgender people may face particular danger from police responses to domestic violence: of three trans people who were killed by police officers in 2017, two were shot during domestic disturbance calls (Human Rights Campaign 2017; Deppen 2017; Lohr 2017). To the extent that bodycams are turned off when officers respond to domestic or intimate partner violence calls, the circumstances of those calls will go unrecorded, and the potential evidentiary value of such recordings will be lost.
Along the same lines, police departments in the United States have been criticized for systemic and institutional failure to respond adequately to allegations of sexual assault. Many policing agencies acknowledge that—as antirape advocates contend—gender bias in sexual assault investigations remains widespread (see, e.g., USDOJ 2016; PERF 2012; IACP 2011), and can contribute to the failure to report these assaults to the police. According to the US Department of Justice, sexual assault is the violent crime least likely to be reported to police, with 65 percent of sexual assaults in the United States going unreported (Langton and Berzofsky 2012: 4). In the United States, Black and Indigenous people experience sexual victimization at higher rates than Whites, but are less likely to report them (Catalano et al. 2009: 5; Planty et al. 2013: 3, 13). Transgender survivors of sexual violence are especially unlikely to report violent or sexual victimization to police. Most transgender people say they feel “somewhat” or “very” uncomfortable asking police to help (James et al. 2016: 184). This further endangers non-White and gender-nonconforming people, since victims of violence who do not report their victimization face an elevated risk of being victimized again (Ranapurwala, Berg, and Casteel 2016).
When asked why they did not contact the police, one common reason given by sexual assault survivors is that they fear that police officers would not or could not help (Planty et al. 2013). When women (or other survivors of sexual violence) report a sexual offense to the police, they often feel revictimized by the investigative response. Survivors of sexual assault often encounter investigators who accuse them of lying about their victimization. Federal legislation, DOJ guidance, and consent decrees have had to direct police departments to stop routinely subjecting survivors to polygraph tests when they report sexual assault (see USDOJ 2016; IACP 2018: 5).5
It is also quite common for investigators to suggest that a survivor might have invited a sexual assault by the way they dressed, or because they had been drinking or taking drugs, were transgender or nonstraight, were unchaste, or knew the person who assaulted them (see, e.g., USDOJ 2016; Crenshaw 1991; Estrich 1986). The practice of “unfounding” a report of sexual assault—declaring it to be false or baseless—is also more common than it should be (USDOJ 2016; Spohn, White, and Tellis 2014). There is evidence that sexual assault allegations by sex workers, LGBTQ people, or Black or Indigenous women are more likely to be dismissed as “unfounded” solely because of those identities (USDOJ 2016; Pokorak 2006). Worse, in many jurisdictions, victims of sex trafficking, including children and youth, have been prosecuted for their involvement in the sex trade (US Department of State 2015: 352). These disparities are consistent with the common beliefs that such victims do not deserve to be taken seriously or that men who assault them should not be punished as criminals (Tuerkheimer 2016). To the extent that bodycams are turned off during investigations and interviews with victims of sexual victimization, such interactions will go unrecorded, leaving officers’ behavior undocumented.
Gender disparities in law enforcement outcomes are particularly acute with respect to sex workers. In the United States, the adults and children who are involved in sex work and sex trafficking are disproportionately non-White—Black, Asian American, Latinx, and Indigenous (Fitzgerald, Patterson, and Hickey 2015). Because they face pervasive discrimination in legitimate employment, transgender people are overrepresented in sex work (James et al. 2016). Sex workers, of any race or gender, face a very high likelihood of sexual victimization and intimate partner violence, whether on the job or in their private lives (USDOJ 2016: 11). Nonetheless, there is a marked pattern of “unfounding” or refusal to investigate reports of gender violence against sex workers in the United States (USDOJ 2016). This practice is so emblematic that the DOJ uses it as an exemplar of the kind of biased investigation that police departments ought to guard against:
Example: A woman who has been known to engage in prostitution flags down a police officer who frequently patrols her neighborhood. She reports to the officer that she was just raped. The police officer on duty writes down her statement, but, when he returns to the police station, he immediately classifies the complaint as “unfounded,” and takes no further action, because of the woman’s sexual and criminal history. (11)
As one sex-worker advocate puts it, “The police and criminal justice systems treat sex workers as though rape were a mere ‘occupational hazard’ of their work—an accusation that would never be thrown at a bank teller who survived a robbery” (Keenan 2014).
Not only has the police response to crimes against sex workers been less than vigorous—unfortunately, it is not unusual that some police officers themselves victimize sex workers and adults and children who have been trafficked. Non-White women and trans people who are suspected of involvement in the sex or drug trade, who are under investigation or arrest, or who are otherwise vulnerable are especially likely targets (Blades 2017; Ritchie 2017). Police officers in multiple jurisdictions have conducted vaginal searches of non-White women, in full view of the public, at traffic stops and in airports (Ritchie 2017). Physical and sexual abuse by police officers is widespread enough that the International Association of Chiefs of Police has issued guidelines to departments on how to prevent it6 (IACP 2011).
Sex workers are especially vulnerable to sexual exploitation and physical violence at the hands of law enforcement. A recent study of the National Blacklist, a website used by sex workers to warn each other about dangerous men, found that 10 percent of postings on the site dealt with police officers (Clark-Flory, Gilat, and Cuen 2015). A 2002 study of sex workers in Chicago found that 20 to 24 percent of street-based sex workers and 30 percent of exotic dancers who had been sexually assaulted said that the perpetrator was a police officer (Raphael and Shapiro 2002). This study also found that 25 percent of escorts had been robbed by a police officer (Raphael and Shapiro 2002). A 2005 study of indoor sex workers in New York City found that 14 percent of them reported sexual violence at the hands of police officers, while 16 percent reported having been “involved in sexual situations” with police officers (Thakral, Ditmore, and Murphy 2005: 11). Sex workers in Alaska report that they have been “threatened into sexual favors by members of Alaska’s law enforcement, or finding themselves in legal trouble after providing sexual favors to a man presumed to be a client, but who is actually a cop” (Hatch 2017).
Trans people who work in the sex trade—or who are assumed by police to be sex workers—indicate very high rates of harassment and abuse at the hands of police. The National Transgender Survey found that, among trans people who had interacted with officers who thought they were sex workers, nearly all—86 percent—reported some kind of mistreatment, whether verbal harassment, physical violence, or sexual assault (James et al. 2016: 158). When officers are undercover, though, such interactions will almost certainly go unrecorded.
Policy Implications: When Will Bodycams Help
A gendered look at the limitations of bodycam policy highlights that many of the most harmful instances of gender bias may be lawful, consistent with departmental policy, or may in practice be institutionally tolerated. Bodycam recording is unlikely to impose accountability or improve behavior when the conduct shown on tape is effectively allowed. With respect to domestic violence, for example, one particularly egregious practice that has been repeatedly documented is police failure to respond to a report that an abuser has breached a restraining order that requires that they stay away from their ex-partner and children (Suk 2006). Where a police department does not vigorously enforce restraining orders, bodycams are unlikely to help. No video recording will occur unless the officer wearing a bodycam attends in response to the call.
Furthermore, where a department has a policy of refusing to enforce restraining orders, the beneficiary of the order (i.e., the victim) cannot sue the department or its officers for that failure, even if they or their child is injured or killed. Police departments are judicially immunized against lawsuits for failure to protect, removing one incentive that might otherwise motivate them to more vigorously protect women, children, and others against domestic violence.7 Where enforcement is not required by law, and civil lawsuits are foreclosed, it is unclear how video recording might be expected to serve as an accountability mechanism except perhaps where departmental policy requires vigorous enforcement of restraining orders.
Furthermore, police officers enjoy considerable discretion as to how they go about investigating sexual assault or any other crime. An officer’s determination of whether an allegation is credible and offers probable cause to make an arrest may fall squarely within the officer’s investigative discretion. Even where probable cause exists, an officer does not have to make an arrest (unless a mandatory charging policy or other rule removes that discretion). If an officer believes that an allegation is false or that no serious crime has occurred, it is probably not misconduct for the officer to exercise his or her discretion not to charge anyone, even if the officer’s judgment may have been shaped by unconscious gender bias. Similarly, if a mandatory charging policy requires an officer to press assault charges against a survivor who defended themself against an abuser, such an arrest does not reflect misconduct by the individual officer. Video of such interactions would not likely facilitate accountability, since the source of the problem is the institutional rule, not misconduct by an individual officer.
Similarly, in sexual assault investigations (like other criminal investigations), neither the tone nor the content of the questioning is ordinarily prescribed or prohibited by law or departmental policy. It is not unlawful to ask a complainant difficult questions, or to disbelieve him or her—even if those actions stem from sexist rape myths. Unless departmental policy explicitly requires police officers to disregard the fact that a complainant is a sex worker, the decision to unfound an allegation on that basis may also fall within the scope of each officer’s discretion.
Even the most egregious of systematic gendered abuses in policing, such as sexual exploitation, may not necessarily contravene criminal law or departmental policy. About thirty-one states, as well as many police departments, lack any law or rule that explicitly forbids police officers to have sex with people in detention or under investigation (Ducharme 2018; Ritchie 2017).8 In such jurisdictions, an officer who has sex with a detainee, even one who is in handcuffs, can argue that the sex was consensual (see, e.g., Samaha 2018). It is unclear how video recording might help reduce or deter such abuse. Where officer-detainee sex is prohibited, it seems likely that an officer who has sex while on duty would turn off the bodycam. In jurisdictions where officer-detainee sex is not categorically banned, a video recording might be of little help: lack of overt resistance by a person who submits out of fear, or hopes for leniency, could be taken as evidence of consent.
Some police departments permit or even encourage officers to engage in sexual contact with a person under investigation, if the person is a sex worker (Walters 2011; Hatch 2017; Ritchie 2017). Most police departments lack any policy expressly forbidding such conduct (Ritchie 2017). A spokesperson for an Alaska police department recently defended the “right” of police officers to have sexual contact with sex workers they are investigating on the basis that such touching may help thwart sex worker tactics aimed at ascertaining whether a new potential client is a cop (Hatch 2017). A lawyer for the state, likewise, argued that officers must be allowed to have sexual contact with people suspected of sex work so that “prostitutes do not have a bright line test” by which they could ask a would-be client to prove he is not a cop by touching them.
Sexual touching and physical assault of sex workers are not consistent with best practices for the investigation of prostitution-related crimes (Walters 2011; USDOJ 2016), but departments are not legally required to adopt best practices that have been identified by policing or advocacy organizations. Most state courts that have considered the question found no constitutional prohibition on sexual touching of a person the officer is investigating for sex work.9 Even if an officer who interacts with a sex worker is not undercover and is wearing a camera, officers enjoy wide (though not unlimited) discretion to use force on criminal suspects.10 Where sexual touching by police officers is consistent with state law and departmental policy, it is unclear how a recording of permissible conduct would result in discipline or any other form of censure.
The most important limitation of the bodycam as accountability mechanism, then, is that it can be expected to influence behaviors only where a recording shows individual officers behaving in a way that is effectively prohibited by departmental policy or legal rules. It does not seem likely that this limitation would be confined to gendered crimes. As has been seen with high-profile videos of severe and lethal use of force by police in other contexts, the fact that misconduct is captured on camera does not mean that an officer will face disciplinary or criminal sanctions—even where, as in the cases of Tamir Rice, Terence Crutcher, and Philando Castile, the video shows use of force that appears to contravene criminal law and departmental policy and resulted in civilian death (see, e.g., Associated Press 2017; Moye 2017; Halpern 2015).
The hope that bodycams will improve safety and fairness rests on the premise that the behavior being recorded would violate criminal laws or departmental norms. To the extent that gendered and racial disparities arise from institutional rules rather than individual wrongdoing, bodycams are unlikely to help. Bodycams can alleviate racialized and gendered injustice only where they are accompanied by a systematic institutional commitment to just and ethical policing so that departmental expectations and legal rules are meaningfully enforced.
Directions for Bodycam Policy Reform
An intersectional, gendered perspective on bodycam policy and practice reveals systemic limitations on the promise of bodycams to bring transparency and accountability. Many of these limitations would require systematic institutional and criminal law reforms that might constrain abusive or unjust policing practices that are currently allowed. We hope that these insights might inspire further research and advocacy about how to create circumstances in which police accountability for gender and racial injustices could be realized. Meanwhile, in this section, we briefly consider directions for bodycam policy reform that might help to alleviate the gendered gaps and injustices we have identified.
As shown above, the solution to these difficulties cannot be the indiscriminate recording of every police-citizen interaction. Gender-nonconforming people, cisgender women, and sex workers, like all other people, have privacy and dignity interests that should preclude such practices. Moreover, it is not clear that video recording affects police-citizen interactions in the way that bodycam proponents hope it will (see Yokum, Ravishankar, and Coppock 2017; Cubitt et al. 2017; Lum et al. 2015; Ariel, Farrar, and Sutherland 2015; Miller, Toliver, and PERF 2014). To the extent that bodycams improve police behavior, the existing research has yet to identify the mechanism of such desirable effects, or the circumstances that yield them. But, most importantly, bodycams can advance accountability only when they are accompanied by an institutional commitment to racial and gender equity inscribed in policy and the disciplinary culture of the jurisdiction.
Bodycam policy, like any other policing policy, should account for the interests and perspectives of vulnerable persons at the intersection of gender, race, and criminal justice. As discussed above, the safety and dignity interests of sex workers and survivors of gendered violence cannot be assumed to align seamlessly with the evidentiary priorities of law enforcement. Rather, a well-designed bodycam policy (like any other well-designed policing policy) will reflect the needs and realities of law enforcement alongside the well-being of the communities they aim to protect. Bodycam policy, then, must be designed in consultation with advocacy groups for survivors and sex workers. Consultations between these groups and police would involve speaking and listening on both sides to identify common interests as well as points of divergence. Community surveys, conducted by social scientists on departments’ behalf, could also be used to ascertain whether and how bodycams might be deployed to promote the safety, dignity, and equality interests of the most vulnerable members of the communities that officers protect.
By questioning the consensus that bodycams will mitigate racial disparity by promoting accountability, this essay demonstrates that intersectional thinking must be central, not peripheral, to policing reforms. Thoughtful attention to the dynamics of gender and sexual orientation alongside racial justice can illuminate the benefits and limitations of policing interventions that are designed to benefit everyone. Bodycams are likely to be turned off in contexts where women and trans people are especially vulnerable to discrimination and abuse, missing the unique harms that women and gender-nonconforming individuals may suffer at the hands of police. Our intersectional view of the promise and limitations of bodycams reveals limitations of the premise that videography will help hold police officers accountable. Instead, it seems that bodycams will promote accountability only where they are accompanied by an institutional commitment to fair and professional policing.
This essay offers an opportunity to reflect on our national theory of change in policing. By centering the experiences of non-White women, sex workers, and trans people, our analysis disrupts a theory of police accountability that assumes that existing policy reforms are already aligned with racial or gender justice. The limitations of bodycams exposed in this essay may identify crucial opportunities for police-community consultation as well as for broader institutional and criminal justice reforms. We must confront the effects of policing practices on our most vulnerable populations if police reform is to promote public safety for everyone.
These gender classifications are reported by police departments and may not necessarily reflect the gender identities of persons who are arrested.
To the extent that transgender women who are arrested for sex work may be logged by police as male, the proportion of female-identified persons arrested for prostitution offenses may be higher. A 2015 survey of transgender persons found that two-thirds of transgender women who were stopped by police officers who thought they were sex workers were not actually involved in sex work (James 2016: 184).
Lifetime prevalence of sexual violence, stalking, and victimization among Black women is slightly higher than for White women. For Indigenous and multiracial-identified women, lifetime prevalence for each of these types of gendered crimes is about 50 percent higher than for White women. For each of these groups of crimes, lifetime prevalence for Latinas is somewhat lower than for White and Black women (Breiding 2014). Of twenty-six transgender people whose killings were recorded in 2018, at least twenty-three were non-White (Human Rights Campaign 2019).
The ACLU (2015: 5) has documented a number of incidents in which bodycam footage of police-citizen encounters was inappropriately released to the public, in ways that humiliated the citizens shown in the videos.
See also the Violence against Women Act, 42 U.S.C. §3796gg-8, “Polygraph Testing Prohibition.”
But “no evidence-based strategies for prevention [of sexual misconduct] are available for use by police departments” (Reingle Gonzalez, Bishopp, and Jetelina 2016: 614).
See Castle Rock v. Gonzales, 545 U.S. 748 (2005); DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dept. of Social Services, 489 U.S. 189 (1989).
In recent months, several jurisdictions have introduced legislation recognizing that sex between a police officer and someone being interviewed, investigated, or detained is not consensual (see, e.g., Ducharme 2018; Lefler 2018; Sanchez 2018).
See, e.g., United States v. Cuervelo, 949 F.2d 559, 567 (2d Cir. 1991); United States v. Nolan-Cooper, 155 F.3d 221, 233 (3d Cir. 1998); Municipality of Anchorage v. Flanagan, 649 P.2d 957, 959 (Alaska Ct. App. 1982); and State v. Thoreson, No. A06-454, 2007 Minn. App. LEXIS 310 (Minn. Ct. App. Apr. 10, 2007).
See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989).