Beyond unhelpful: a few ways body cameras are making the system even more unfair for defendants
Approximately half of the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies have some type of body camera program. But a new study shows that body camera footage is not objective, and the perspective of the camera can skew viewer perceptions and interpretations of an incident. Body cameras and dashboard cameras are not interchangeable. “The two leave viewers with very different impressions of the incident—and, research shows, different takeaways about the amount of blame that could be attributed to the officers,” writes Nicole Wetsman for The Appeal. “People are more likely to absolve officers after viewing footage from body cameras than after seeing the same incident captured on a dashboard camera, according to a new study.” The one person not recorded by a body camera is usually the person wearing it and “we need to see a person to attach judgments of attribution,” says lead study author Broderick Turner, a doctoral student at Northwestern University. His study analyzed nearly 400 police videos, finding that officers were on screen far less of the time in body camera videos than dashboard camera videos. “The findings, published in the journal PNAS, also found that participants in the study were less likely to say that they would indict an officer wearing a body camera than one recorded on a dashboard camera,” Wetsman writes. [Nicole Wetsman / The Appeal]
In addition to keeping the officers who wear them off-screen, body cameras also keep civilians engaging with officers on screen. “Researchers have speculated that because suspects or civilians are the focus, viewers might see them as having more responsibility, due to a cognitive effect called illusory causation that makes people more likely to ascribe intent to the dominant thing in their view,” writes Wetsman. “Body cameras placed at shoulder or chest level will also naturally point at video subjects from below. That perspective makes them look taller and larger than they actually are, which might also make them seem more threatening.” The information presented along with a body camera video can also change how people interpret it, especially if an officer, trying to defend the use of force against a civilian, claims the civilian instigated the confrontation, even if those events were not captured on video. In experiments, people have relied on the officer’s report to make sense of what they were seeing. [Nicole Wetsman / The Appeal] This might not mean giving up on body cameras, but rather changing how they are used and presented.
The Buffalo News in upstate New York this week published a letter to the editor, responding to an editorial called “Body cameras in focus” that said “security video clearly shows that the man a Buffalo officer fatally shot in September was armed and holding on to a weapon.” In his letter to the editor, a civil rights lawyer wrote, “Do you have the same video that I have? I have had it professionally enhanced, enlarged, slowed down and analyzed by four separate law enforcement officers. None of them concludes that anything about that video was ‘clear,’ other than [that the man was] running away from the officers. Their comments ranged from ‘that suspect was executed. It was cold-blooded murder’ to ‘this is a questionable shoot at best.’” [Steven M. Cohen / Buffalo News]
Also this week, the Washington Post reported that Virginia lawmakers cited police body cameras in their decision to delay a crucial criminal justice reform that was “many years in the making and mandated by the state Supreme Court.” The new rules would have required prosecutors to turn over discovery to people facing criminal charges so they have time to examine the evidence and make informed decisions. “Virginia’s discovery rules are among the nation’s most restrictive; they have not changed since 1972 and give defendants little idea of what evidence will be used against them,” write the reporters. Lawmakers said prosecutors pressured them into delaying the reforms, expressing concern about making changes to discovery practices while also dealing with an increase in body camera evidence. Apparently lawmakers believed this argument, but the Washington Post was not convinced. Reviewing footage from body cameras is time intensive, but “a study of discovery policy in Virginia and neighboring North Carolina suggested that transparency was ultimately more efficient because it dramatically cut down disputes over evidence.” [Rachel Weiner and Laura Vozzella / Washington Post]
This comes at a time when police departments, especially small ones, are dropping or delaying body camera programs, citing costs. A police department in Wahoo, Nebraska, ended its program in November after the state passed a law requiring video to be stored for at least 90 days, which brought the the annual price to $15,000, too high for a force of five officers. The body cameras are not expensive, said Jim Pasco, executive director at the National Fraternal Order of Police. “But storing all the data that they collect—that cost is extraordinary. The smaller the department, the tougher it tends to be for them.” Prosecutors, too, are struggling to keep up with the added workload and expenses. Some court-appointed defense attorneys are paid a flat fee based on the time it usually takes to prepare a case, but reviewing video evidence has significantly increased that time. Some worry this will disincentivize local lawyers from taking appointed criminal cases. [Kimberly Kindy / Washington Post]
When city officials in Madison, Wisconsin rejected a body camera pilot program, cost was a primary concern, but some also worried that the videos might be turned over to ICE and used against undocumented people. “A call for transparency is not the same thing as accountability,” activist M Adams told the Madison Common Council. “If we as a community don’t have the power to interpret the footage, if we as a community don’t have the power to make a decision about the outcome of the footage, then it makes no difference how much footage that there actually is.” [Kimberly Kindy / Washington Post]