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Research Brief

Key Findings

  • The team identified no critical issues that would preclude U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from proceeding with further development and procurement of body-worn cameras (BWCs).
  • Personnel observed that using footage can improve training and operations; officers can review events and get feedback on potential improvements.
  • Personnel expressed critical concerns that footage could be made public through Freedom of Information Act or discovery processes, creating potential safety threats.
  • Officers and agents reported that video management, especially uploads and tagging, burdened them with extra work.

In 2021, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) undertook a pilot program in which a select group of officers in the field wore body cameras. Mandated by Congress, the pilot was designed to determine the feasibility and impact of body-worn cameras (BWCs) in ICE operations (see Figures 1 and 2). Among the pilot's goals were improving officer safety, reducing the number of uses of force, and reducing the numbers of complaints against officers and agents.

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents assigned to special response teams (SRTs) and officers from Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) (SRTs and Fugitive Operations teams) participated in the pilot. SRTs are, in effect, special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams, carrying out arrests and serving high-risk warrants, among other activities.

Personnel were based at seven pilot sites — four HSI SRT sites and three Enforcement and Removal Operations sites — where they wore BWCs and provided feedback to both ICE and the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC).

To assess the results of the pilot, a team of HSOAC researchers conducted an independent, mixed-method analysis of the program. The assessment sought to improve ICE leadership's understanding of issues related to use of force and complaints (for HSI only), as well as user adoption, effectiveness, implementation, and data issues for all users. The team collected and analyzed data from BWCs and observed their use in training and operational environments. The analysis was supplemented by data and observations collected by ICE and analyzed by the HSOAC team. This brief presents the top public, non–law enforcement–sensitive results of the HSOAC assessment.

Figure 1. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers Carrying Out a Raid in San Francisco, California, July 2019

Three ICE ERO Officers in San Francisco conducting Operation Cross Check. Visible faces are blurred. Photo by Ron Rogers/ICE

Photo by Ron Rogers/ICE

Results

The results of the analysis are as follows:

  • overarching result. The team identified no critical issues that would preclude ICE from proceeding with further development and procurement of BWCs, if so desired.
  • use-of-force and complaint rates. The team found no significant reductions in uses of force or complaints against agents observed for those wearing cameras; however, neither were there significant increases. Overall, the pilot units had very low rates of uses of force and complaints, making it impossible to detect moderate changes in these rates, statistically.[1]
  • protection against frivolous complaints. Personnel who were interviewed indicated that BWC video could protect them from frivolous complaints, lawsuits, and other accusations. In one case, BWC footage disproved a safety-violation allegation made against one of the pilot units.
  • unauthorized disclosure and use. Personnel who were interviewed expressed critical concerns that footage could be made public through Freedom of Information Act or discovery processes and create safety threats, especially if footage were made available within criminal organizations. A similar concern expressed was that managers or others inside or outside ICE would abuse video to unfairly target officers.
  • cognitive burden. Personnel interviewed said that having to remember to activate BWCs during operations could distract them and impose added cognitive burdens. In addition, being captured on video could cause officers to worry about being micromanaged and to overthink their actions or hesitate, thus creating operational risks, they said. Personnel also noted that they could adapt or had adapted to the presence of cameras over time.
  • denial of searches. ERO officers expressed concerns that notifying subjects during requested home searches of the need to record would lead many to refuse the recordings and thus deny access to their homes. Given the limited deployments of BWCs to ERO units during the pilot, the authors could not assess these concerns.
  • reporting. Personnel interviewed said that video footage can assist with reporting, noting that video facilitates the quicker delivery of more-accurate reports.
  • placement and operational issues. Some users reported struggling with how and where to wear the cameras. Some cameras were not easily attached to polos or other shirts or other standard uniform components, and flexible, helmet-mounted cameras proved difficult to install.
  • video management. Personnel pointed to a variety of issues with video management. For uploads, both HSI SRT and ERO team members noted that members' homes and operational sites could be hours apart in driving time. Thus, having to return to an office from an operational site can add hours to an officer's workday. Second, coordinators noted spending hours per operation to review and tag videos. They also reported expending substantial effort to maintain the cameras and charging equipment. Some coordinators, especially early in the pilot, reported confusion about how to manage the cameras and video uploads.
  • training. Multiple people mentioned that using footage can improve training and operations: Officers and agents can review what happened during an event or operation and get feedback on potential improvements.

Figure 2. Body-Worn Cameras Used in the ICE Pilot Program

The Axon Body 3 camera is pictured on the left. The Axon Flex 2 camera is pictured on the right. Photo by Axon.com

SOURCE: Axon. The Axon Body 3 camera at left; the Axon Flex 2 camera at right.

Recommendations

  • As deployments of BWCs increase, continue to monitor whether BWC usage is associated with changes in uses of force, assaults on officers, complaints, or personnel behavior.
  • Continue to monitor whether and to what extent BWC usage results in refusals of searches.
  • Provide additional guidance about how and where to install BWCs, and work with vendors to improve the ease of wearing cameras.
  • Commensurate with needed cybersecurity protections, enable officers to upload and charge BWCs at home or at other remote locations.
  • Provide additional guidance about video management (tagging in particular) and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of officers and coordinators in terms of BWC care, upload, charging, tagging, and any other tasks. Prepare to fund BWC coordinators to satisfy this role.
  • Adopt and publicize policies, procedures, and training provisions that protect against the improper release of tactical and personally identifiable information. To ensure that sensitive information is protected, these provisions need to include working with external partners, including both other law enforcement agencies and court officers, who receive footage.
  • In response to Freedom of Information Act requests, ensure that personnel involved in redacting and reviewing video prior to release have sufficient operational expertise to know what to redact; implement procedures for reviewing returned video clips to ensure that they do not disclose sensitive information.

Conclusion

The authors found no issues to preclude ICE from proceeding with further development and procurement of BWCs. However, this study faced two significant limitations. First, because HSI SRTs conducted few operations and small numbers were involved, the analysis could not detect statistically moderate effects of BWC use that a larger-scale analysis could detect. Second, many of the results focus on perceptions and opinions of agents and officers because the tactical and sensitive natures of the pilot teams made it difficult to capture data from the public or people who had contact with officers or agents wearing BWCs during the pilot. If BWCs are implemented more broadly in the field, these limitations could be resolved.

Note

  • [1] Given the low use-of-force and complaint rates, the authors would have needed data on thousands of operations to tell whether BWCs made a difference to these rates on the order of 10 to 20 percent. The pilot units carried out only hundreds of operations during the experiment.

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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