Abstract Questions about police officer behaviour, particularly officer-involved shootings, have contributed to the argument that street-level police officers should wear body cameras. The assumption is that a body camera will provide an objective reality of what occurred during an encounter. Absent from the discussion is the notion of perceptual distortion, misinformation, and the development of false memories. This article provides an examination of how these psychological dimensions can impact a police officer’s decision-making as well as their ability to accurately recall the details of an incident. It is argued here that while a body camera video may provide accurate documentation of an event, it is reasonable to argue that what the officer sees may not match objective reality because of perceptual distortions. Further, deviations between objective reality and officer recall does not equate to lying, a cover-up, or a ‘rogue’ officer. Introduction In the past few years, there has been a pronounced call for police officers to wear body cameras. The suggestion is that body cameras have a variety of positive benefits, including providing transparency to police officer behaviour (White, 2014). Within the issue of transparency is a simple explanation for using body cameras: a body camera will provide an objective reality of what occurred during an encounter (Miller and Toliver, 2014). If a camera has recorded an event, and the recording is of sufficient quality to determine precisely what occurred or what was said, it will be easier to hold an officer accountable for their behaviour. Objective reality means that the camera captures exactly what occurred. These images will make it easy to determine who is telling the truth about their actions. Conversely, the camera can determine who is lying. What has not been addressed in the body camera discussion is what a person ‘sees’ when they are engaged in an unexpected or high-stress incident. A body of scientific research demonstrates that people are often inaccurate with their initial observations of an event (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989; Wise et al., 2007). Further, they may have mistaken recollection of what they saw (Loftus et al., 1987; Loftus, 1992; Gerrie et al., 2006; Frenda et al., 2011). Thus, where a body camera can visually document objective reality, a video recording will not eliminate inaccurate observations and false memories, even if the observer believes them to be true. The goal of this comment is to add deeper understanding to the research and policy proposals regarding police body cameras. Based on prior research of eyewitnesses and police officers, it questions the assumption that the objective reality of an event is accurately seen, comprehended, and remembered by those who are actually involved in the event as it played out. The argument being made, particularly by public officials and media pundits, is that a close examination of a video is the final word on precisely what occurred in a police/citizen encounter (Goldsmith, 2010). That is, an accurate evaluation of a police officer’s performance can be judged based on repeated viewing and scrutinizing of a video. Often the video is played continually and in slow motion, allowing those who were not at the scene to judge, frame by frame, the objective reality of the event (Goldsmith, 2010; Blitz, 2015). An examination of different scholarship sources strongly suggests that this is an unfair method for evaluating the behaviour or activity of a police officer who often does not have the luxury of time or incident reassessment in their decision-making. A brief review of body cameras Police agencies have accessed advances in technology since they began using patrol cars and telephone ‘call box’ systems in the early part of the 20th century. More recently, cameras and recording innovations moved from CCTVs (closed-circuit televisions) and VCR recorders to dashboard cameras in patrol cars. Within the past decade police body cameras have been explored by many police agencies as a technology to improve policing. The suggested advantages of having police officers wear a recording device include transparency (i.e. allowing the public to see the behaviour of police officers) (Katz et al., 2014; White, 2014; Brucato, 2015), improving both police and citizen behaviour (Miller and Toliver, 2014; White, 2014; Brucato, 2015), accelerating the resolution of citizen complaints (Miller and Toliver, 2014), providing evidence for trial (Miller and Toliver, 2014; White, 2014), and providing police-training resources (White, 2014; Blitz, 2015). The primary down-side of body-worn cameras is the documentation of public interactions that both citizens and officers might want to keep private (White, 2014; Blitz, 2015). This technology can also be very expensive for police agencies (Miller and Toliver, 2014; White, 2014; Mateescu et al., 2015). In the past few years, the primary push to move police agencies to use body cameras are police/citizen encounters, such as in Ferguson, MO (Brucato, 2015). There are also numerous news articles and journalist comments arguing for an increased use of body cameras. The assumption regarding an increased use of body cameras is that these devices will record the objective reality of an event. A video image of a police/citizen interaction provides ‘more accurate fact-finding after an incident’ (Blitz, 2015, p. 1). Information in Brucato (2015) argued that body camera video evidence documents ‘truth and reality’ (p. 459) and can be used to hold officers, as well as chief executives, accountable for their behaviour. Essentially, the images available from a body camera can be used as a performance metric for evaluating an individual officer’s behaviour or activity (Miller and Toliver, 2014; Mateescu et al., 2015). As part of their utility as a measure of objective reality, body cameras are considered much better than information provided by eyewitness testimony, particularly after time has passed (Blitz, 2015). An exemplar incident The advent of digital recording technology, particularly in the hands of the general public, and the growth of social media platforms, allow anyone with a cell phone to record and post a video; the police are often the subjects of these videos (Goldsmith, 2010). To examine the assumption that a police body camera can record an objective reality, and that the objective reality of an event is accurately seen, comprehended, and remembered by those who are actually involved in the event, a recent police shooting incident that included several different camera recordings is used as a prototype. In the summer of 2015, Officer Ray Tensing, a police officer with the University of Cincinnati, was involved in a shooting during a traffic stop. The officer reported that the driver had tried to pull away from the traffic stop and in the process the officer was dragged alongside the car. The officer feared for his life, justifying his use of deadly force. The officer’s own body camera, however, refuted this claim.1 Two ‘back up’ officers, Phillip Kidd and David Lindenschmidt, were pulling up to the scene as the shooting occurred. Shortly after the shooting, body camera audio heard Officer Tensing stating to the other officers that he had been dragged when the driver pulled away. Officer Kidd was heard on the body camera recording corroborated Officer Tensing’s claim: ‘Yea, I saw that.’ This statement, it was argued, strongly suggested that Officer Kidd misrepresented the events of the incident. There were public accusations that the officers had colluded to cover-up the truth.1 Several weeks later Officer Kidd was not indicted because his written report did not state that Officer Tensing was actually dragged.2 It is unknown if the two back up officers were able to examine their body camera recordings prior to writing their reports. If so it is likely that they documented what the camera recorded, which should be no surprise. It would be irresponsible for someone to argue that an event had occurred when the video clearly demonstrated that it had not occurred. The question remains, however, as to why Officer Kidd would state clearly that he had seen Officer Tensing being dragged when this did not, in fact, occur. To understand the possible explanations for Officer Kidd’s response, it is necessary to examine the research pertaining to eyewitness testimony, false memories, and perceptual distortions.3 Reality versus perception The notion that eyewitness testimony is potentially faulty is well documented, despite the feeling that one should believe another person when they say ‘I saw it with my own eyes.’ Yet, it is not necessary to read academic research studies to understand the problem with eyewitness perception. In May 2015, a New York City police officer shot a suspect who was using a hammer to attack his partner. Within a short time a witness at the scene spoke with a reporter from The New York Times, stating that the police officer shot a man who was trying to get away from the officers. Later in the day another eyewitness called a reporter from The New York Times and stated that the officer had shot a handcuffed suspect. Video from a street surveillance camera, however, revealed that the suspect actually attacked the officers as they approached him to investigate the report of a man with a hammer.4 Eyewitness perception and error is no small problem in the criminal justice system; research suggests that 64% of convictions that relied primarily on eyewitness testimony were incorrect (Gross et al., 2005). A variety of explanations for eyewitness error have been recognized, including fear and high-stress incidents (Brigham et al., 1999; Wise et al., 2005), the presence of a weapon (Stebley, 1992; Brigham et al., 1999), the amount of time a person can focus on an event as it plays out (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989; Loftus, 1992; Loftus, 2005), and the time between the end of the event and when a person can document their observations (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989; Candel and Merckelbach, 2004). It might be assumed that police officers would be less susceptible to eyewitness inaccuracy problems because they are trained specifically to deal with high-stress incidents, as well as focus their attention on potentially suspicious behaviour; however, this is not the case. Research shows that regardless of the training police officers might commonly receive, they are no better than the average person at making an accurate identification after a stressful incident (Yuille, 1984). When police and citizen recall was examined in shooting incidents, ‘police and citizen witnesses did not differ significantly in the accuracy of their eyewitness reports’ (Stanny and Johnson, 2000, p. 377). In addition, the presence of a weapon negatively impacted the ability of both officers and citizens to recall offender details (Stanny and Johnson, 2000). Even when dealing with non-stressful incidents, other scholars (Taslitz, 2010, p. 35) have argued ‘that police, like all people, are too often subject to inaccurate first impressions’ (i.e. facial expression, verbal cues). It is also important to consider that most police officers rarely deal with high-stress incidents, such as a shooting (Geller and Scott, 1992). Klinger (2012) reported that less than one-half of 1% of all the officers in the USA shot someone during the course of a year. Therefore, police officers would not be able to ‘practice’ their ability to visually document and recall a high-stress event. What police officers are trained for is the need for survival. Barker (1998) argued that ‘the primary emphasis in academy training is on conveying a sense of the physical danger of the job’ (p. 67). Rookie officers are taught that danger is ever-present, even during a simple traffic stop (Crank, 1998). Thus, from the academy, to field training, to the day-to-day interactions with other officers, police officers perceive and anticipate danger at all turns, even if the actual exposure to danger is lower than might be expected. Further, police officers can practice ‘officer’s safety’ procedures in minor or serious events. In order to stay safe, police officers are trained to maintain a defensive body position; they pay attention to a person’s hands because that is where the danger comes from. Thus, police officers are sensitive to the movements of those with whom they are interacting. Unfortunately, research (using college students as test subjects) indicates that a person can misinterpret what another person may be holding in their hands. In 2001, Payne found that harmless objects may be interpreted as weapons. For example, a cell phone or hand tool can be mistaken for a gun. Adding to the problem of weapon misidentification is the fact that race contributes to the error. That is, when the subject of observation is African American, they are more likely to be viewed as holding a weapon (Payne, 2001; Payne et al., 2005). In addition, both White and African American research subjects demonstrated equal bias in the studies (Correll et al., 2002). It seems a small consequence that when Correll and his colleagues compared police officers and community members, the officers performed better (i.e. ‘less trigger-happy’ towards minority targets), where community members demonstrated higher error rates in their decision to shoot. Based upon the officer’s concern for danger, their training to watch a person’s hands, and their inability to be better witnesses than anyone else, it is understandable that if an officer thinks he or she sees a gun, then the officer will say ‘I saw a gun.’ It is not a conscious intent to lie or misrepresent an event; rather it is a reasonable subconscious belief that they really saw something that was not there. Unfortunately, as some of the research on prejudice and stereotyping demonstrates, it is possible that a police officer ‘can act in a perfectly good faith belief that a suspect is up to no good, but that belief may stem from subconscious biases, stereotypes, and other flawed judgments’ (Taslitz, 2010, p. 5). Maliable memory The problems with police officers correctly recalling an incident does not stop with their ability to be an accurate eyewitness. A plethora of research demonstrated that people do not automatically retain what they may have seen during an incident. In short, a person can create a new or ‘false’ memory of the contents or components of an event based on what they may have been exposed to after an event (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989; Loftus, 2005). A person may produce a new memory because they actually lose detailed information soon after an event (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989; Loftus, 1992). Others are subject to the power of suggestion. For example, two people may witness an event and one may not really be sure what just happened. The first person may say ‘did you see that’ and then offer an idea of what occurred; the second person will ‘accept misinformation and adopt it as their own’ (Loftus and Hoffman, 1989, p. 101). That is, the suggestion allows a person to manufacture a memory of what they did not actually see. Loftus (2005) proposed that misinformation can even lead people to have very rich false memories. ‘Once embraced, people can express these false memories with confidence and detail’ (p. 365). There are several additional dimensions to explain why external influences can contaminate reality and contribute to false memories. First, stressful situations have been shown to develop and even strengthen false memories. Stressful incidents include witnessing a criminal event (Payne et al., 2002) or being interrogated by the police (Morgan et al., 2013). Secondly, the type of misinformation impacts acceptance. Frenda et al. (2011) suggested that ‘the subtlest suggestions can produce astonishing false witness’ (p. 22). Loftus (1992) argued that subtle misinformation is actually necessary; when a comment is vague and open to interpretation, it more easily allows an individual the ability to accept the abstract suggestion. Finally, a person may self-generate a false memory to fill in missing information for an event, and maintain total confidence in what they believe, but did not actually see (Gerrie et al., 2006). Loftus (2003) saliently summarized the multidimensional considerations for false memories by saying ‘memory more closely resembles a synthesis of experiences than a replay of a videotape’ (Loftus 2003, p. 231). While it is an uncomfortable reality, anyone can be subject to memory distortions that result from misinformation suggestions (Frenda et al., 2011). Even a police officer can be subject to the same witness mistakes and memory errors as the average person. Police officers often deal with incidents that are loud and confusing, and they may not be able to absorb all the activity that is occurring because they are focused on their own safety. It may be a simple traffic stop, but if a person makes a ‘furtive’ movement that the officer was not expecting, their training may fill in the blanks with the idea that something dangerous is happening. In other words, the wallet may become a gun because the officer has been trained to expect a gun. The impact of police training on an officer’s behaviour is related to the notion of ‘flashbulb memories’, which are ‘a vivid recall of the circumstances in which one first learned of some important event’ (Brown and Kulik, 1977, p. 78). For example, one need not have been present in New York City on 11 September 2001 to create a memory for learning about the event. The emotion of the event, and its consequentiality, can create a vivid image that is retained over time, even though the event is not experienced first-hand (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 2003). While Brown and Kulik suggested ‘there is no obvious utility in such memories’ (1977, p. 74), this may not be true of police officer training. Academy training includes ‘war stories’, and contemporary training often includes video or crime scene images to illustrate an important event. Rookie officers may retain these training events as flashbulb memories. Despite the loss of accuracy over time (Talarico and Rubin, 2003; Talarico and Rubin, 2007), these flashbulb memories may impact an officer’s decision-making years later when they are involved in situations similar to their academy training. True lies This comment began with the assumption that a body camera can record the objective reality of an event. Also, there seems to be an assumption that the objective reality is accurately seen, comprehended, and remembered by those who are actually involved in the event as it played out. Another way of framing these assumptions is that a use-of-force incident or an officer-involved shooting event is a clear, rational, and linear incident. By simply looking at the video recording, if the quality is reasonably good, anyone can determine the sequence of events, frame by frame. Surely the police officer who is involved in the incident would be expected to recall precisely what occurred; after all, the officer was there and saw it with their own eyes. Any deviation from a frame by frame dissection of the video means the officer is lying, and characterized as being a ‘rogue cop’.5 These simple assumptions, explanations, and characterizations for police shootings that are documented with video evidence are simply unsupported by the research. Further, there is scholarship, if fairly limited in quantity, demonstrating that police officers who fire their weapons often experience perceptual distortions in the moments leading up to the shooting as well as after firing their weapon. Perceptual distortions include a sense of slow motion time, auditory variations, and visual distortions (Klinger and Brunson, 2009). Klinger (2001) studied 113 officers who had been involved in a shooting incident; almost all officers reported some type of psychological, emotional, and physiological responses as part of, or even after, the shooting. Often the officers experienced a combination of distortions. Extreme examples include an officer who knew he had fired his weapon, but could only recall the cycling of the firearm but not hearing the actual shots. In another incident, the officer did not even know he fired his weapon. Klinger and Brunson concluded that ‘the decisions that officers make about firing their weapons will frequently be based on perceptions of the situation that do not enjoy a one-to-one correspondence with objective reality’ (p. 134). In addition, these scholars argued that perceptual distortions may negatively impact an officer’s ability to accurately recall the events of a shooting incident. Returning to the officers in Cincinnati, it is reasonable to assume that Officer Kidd, who arrived at the traffic stop just as the shooting occurred, did not have the opportunity to absorb the details of the incident. After hearing the shot, then a short foot pursuit, and seeing the end result of the event, Officer Kidd may subconsciously have been ‘looking for’ a way to understand the incident. The multiple components of the larger incident could have contributed to the stress and misperception experienced by Officer Kidd. Thus, when Officer Tensing stated that he had been dragging by the driver, Officer Kidd may have responded to this ‘subtle suggestion’ by saying ‘yeah, I saw that’, as a subconscious method for generating a memory to fill in the gaps of the event. To suggest that the officers had concocted a cover-up so quickly after the event, without that conspiracy being captured on the audio portion of the body camera, is unlikely; unless, of course, the officers commonly employ ‘subtle suggestions’ in these types of incidents. The only means of examining this behaviour, however, is by studying a larger number of such rare events.6 Conclusion This comment is not intended to minimize the contribution that body cameras are intended to make for more effective policing. Law enforcement leaders, street-level officers, and police union officials should embrace the possibility that body-worn cameras can improve many aspects of policing. Body camera images can be used for training purposes rather than simply monitoring the minutia of a patrol officer’s behaviour (Miller and Toliver, 2014; White, 2014). Incidents recorded on a camera can be used to develop scenarios for academy training, and to help evaluate new officers in order to improve standards of performance (Miller and Toliver, 2014). Body cameras may also protect the officers from false accusations (Miller and Toliver, 2014; White, 2014), and provide a better, although not perfect, understanding of their point of view during an incident. Essentially, knowing the objective reality of an incident can have benefits for citizens and the police. Still, the discrepancy between what actually occurs, and what a person believes actually occurs, must be included in the body camera debate. If an advantage of police body cameras includes the recording of the objective reality, there must be an understanding of why an officer’s written report varies from the evidence in the camera. It is unreasonable to assume any variation from that truth is a lie. A police officer may genuinely believe they saw something that was not there or something that did not occur. The witnesses in New York City who thought they saw a handcuffed suspect being shot by the police would not likely have been prosecuted had they filed an official report with the police. The authorities would probably have shown them the video and explained the error. Similar considerations should be made by police chiefs and prosecutors when it comes to officer-involved shootings; they cannot automatically assume that a police officer lied, or used bad judgment, or ‘went rogue’, when their actions do not comport with the reality shown by a body camera. Allowing a police officer to review body camera video when writing an official police report is an important consideration, as demonstrated in a recent US Department of Justice report (Miller and Toliver, 2014). The rational for allowing a review prior to making a verbal or written statement was that inconsistencies would be avoided, thus sustaining an officer’s credibility. It was also suggested that officers should not be allowed to view the video; the officer may tailor the statement to fit the video, which may not provide a justification for their behaviour. The absence of justification also threatens the officer’s credibility. The proposed benefit of police body cameras, particularly the fact that a video recording cannot ‘forget’ or fabricate information, is clearly an improvement on human memory or eyewitnesses. Blitz (2005) warned that video information can still be open to interpretation. Perceptual distortions, misinformation, and false memories must become part of the ‘reasonable officer’ standard articulated by the US Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor (1989). Police chiefs, prosecutors, as well as the general public, cannot automatically assume that a police officer lied, or used bad judgment, when their actions do not comport with the reality shown by a body camera video. Footnotes 1http://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2015/07/31/criminologist-uc-officer-charged-lying/30890861/http://wfae.org/post/police-body-cameras-part-1-patrol 2http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2015/07/31/prosecutor-no-charges-against-other-university-of-cincinnati-officers-who-witnessed-shooting-of-samuel-dubose/http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/07/31/charges-officers-cincinnati-shooting/30974425/ 3 None of the police officers has been contacted for this article. 4http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/15/nyregion/witness-accounts-in-midtown-hammer-attack-show-the-power-of-false-memory.html?_r=0 5http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-laquan-video-edit-1125-20151124-story.html http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-cop-shooting-laquan-mcdonald-murder-charge-1125-20151124-story.html 6 The author would like to thank an anonymous review for this observation. References Barker J. C. ( 1998). 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Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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