Video from officer-worn cameras is judged less negatively than footage captured on dashboard cameras
The body camera is fast becoming a standard issue piece of police uniforms. The independent research group Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reported in 2018 that one-third of U.S. law enforcement agencies are using body cameras and another 50 percent have plans to.
Though still a relatively new part of policing policy, they are getting positive reviews from law enforcement. According to PERF, 85 percent of agencies using body-worn cameras (BWC) would recommend them to other police agencies.
A field study that tracked the impact of body cams used by officers in the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police department suggests it’s a win-win for law enforcement and citizens. Officers wearing body cams were less likely to use force and triggered fewer citizen complaints. When complaints were filed, the availability of video footage reduced the time (and cost) of the investigation by an estimated $3,000 annually per officer, net of the cost of the technology.
All hail the body cam as cost-effective technology advancing a more just society? Well, not so fast. Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America indicates there may be an implicit bias in how video from body cams is perceived in legal proceedings.
In a series of eight experiments that included more than 2,000 participants, Northwestern’s Broderick L. Turner, UCLA Anderson’s Eugene M. Caruso, Northwestern’s Neal J. Roese, and Mike A. Dilich of Foresight Reconstruction, a consulting firm, found that when third parties (think: jurors) are tasked with forming an opinion of an officer’s intent, they are less likely to form a negative opinion when they can’t actually see the officer’s body. That makes the disembodied vantage point of police video from a body cam an unintended advantage for police, compared to how people assign intent when viewing surveillance video from a car dashboard camera where the officer is much more visible.
The researchers surmise that “viewing body cam footage might make judgments by jurors and as well by the general public more lenient toward the body cam wearer (usually a police officer) than might otherwise be warranted.”
In one experiment, 250 participants were tasked with viewing three real-life police videos. Two showed a police officer shooting a suspect, the third showed an officer breaking a car window after approaching a vehicle and getting no response. The videos were a mix of body cam and dash cam. Participants were asked to rate how strongly they felt the officer’s action was intentional on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), the level of blame they assigned the officer on a scale of 1 (none at all) to 7 (a great deal), and how much punishment they would assign to the officer.