On the popular CBS reality show COPS, TV cameras followed police officers and sheriff’s deputies on patrols as their fielded service calls and performed other duties. Unlike many “reality” shows, there was no scripted dialogue or narration. The only dialogue was when officers conversed with witnesses or suspects on camera. The show often ended with police making one or more arrests.

The show was in its 31st season in 2020 before being dropped amid public outrage over the George Floyd case. As the latest in a series of real-life videos of violent police altercations went viral, it was clear that police activity was no longer considered a spectator sport.

The promise of bodycams

When police first began using body cameras in the fall of 2014, support for the move was widespread among the public, media, justice system, and law enforcement. One impetus for the change was the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri earlier that year. Surveillance video of the shooting was not available, and a grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson.

According to a New York Times and CBS News poll, after the Michael Brown case, Missouri, both Democrats (90 percent) and Republicans (79 percent) endorsed police wearing bodycams. Likewise, there was equal support from black (93 percent) and white (93 percent) respondents, according to a 2014 Pew Research poll.

The logic was that bodycams could work as impartial observers, recording events as they played out; the belief was that technology would create a new era of transparency and openness and serve as a neutral arbiter of events under review.

What wasn’t taken into account was human nature. Even if a bodycam captures an event precisely as it happens and supports eyewitness accounts of all parties involved, video evidence does not really serve as objective truth. Context, emotion, and opinion formed by preconceived notions can alter various perceptions of the same event.

Camera bias and point of view

There’s a popular phrase, “The camera never lies.” Camera pictures or video footage may not lie, but according to studies as far back as 1986, “camera perspective” can influence perceptions of suspects and the conduct of police officers.

In one such study published by researchers at Augusta University, it was found that the angle of a camera can alter the perception of a suspect. In a series of experiments testing camera perspective in artificial and authentic confession tapes, researchers found that when a camera focused exclusively on a suspect during an interrogation, there was a greater likelihood the viewer would believe the suspect was guilty.

When the camera was focused solely on the interrogator, or equally between the subject and the interrogator, the belief in the likelihood of the suspect’s guilt decreased. Some case studies refer to this as “camera bias.”

Why is that important? Unlike police dash cams, cellphone video or jailhouse cameras, which focus more equally between the police officer and suspect, bodycam footage focuses primarily on the suspect in an encounter. When there is disagreement about an incident and the film footage focus is solely on the suspect, viewers of bodycam footage are more likely to side with a police officer’s account.

Studies have also shown that vantage points can influence opinions in a case.

In 2019, JD Supra Knowledge Center shared research demonstrating that film viewers were twice as likely to exhibit “hindsight bias” watching an accident reconstruction from a sky camera than from a camera at ground level.

The study showed that subjects viewing a reconstructed accident animation from an overhead vantage point were more likely to believe that the accident was preventable. Conversely, when the same viewers saw the same accident from a driver’s eye view, as with a driving simulator, the subjects were more likely to say that the accident was not preventable.

Judgment calls

The Augusta University researchers found that when incidents involving the police are filmed, viewers generally perform four types of judgments:

  • Factual judgments. Viewers evaluate the facts and actions of what happened (e.g., Was a weapon involved?)
  • Subjective judgments. These require the viewer to evaluate the action through the lens of their own personal biases and opinions (e.g., Was reasonable force used? Was the arresting officer in fear for their life?)
  • Was there anything unique about the suspect (e.g., Was the suspect a minority, heavily tattooed, or dressed unconventionally? Was their behavior toward the officer threatening or intimidating?)
  • If the suspect was a minority, was race believed to be a factor in the incident (e.g., Did the suspect’s race and/or the officer’s race factor into the arrest in any way?)

Three of these judgment types require a subjective interpretation. Bodycams may be prevalent in police departments nationwide, but regardless of the widespread support for their use, such video does not necessarily serve as objective evidence when arbitrating areas of disagreement.

Conclusion: Don’t rely on bodycams alone

Bodycams can and do help policing, and some studies have shown that mere awareness that a police officer is using a bodycam often prompts both suspects and police to self-monitor their behavior. Bodycams have an important place in the national discussion on ways to improve relations between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and have already proven to be a critical tool in improving police methods.

When citing video as impartial evidence, however: Law enforcement organizations, the media, and the public need to be aware of its limitations. The images inside the human brain can overshadow the visual images being presented. Departments must be prepared to present additional evidence of an officer’s training and temperament to answer questions raised by video footage.

Gathering such objective data in one readily accessible place, for every officer throughout their career, is one way to mitigate the subjectivity that is still inherent even in video. Taking a hard line on officer accountability, and empowering peers and supervisors with the tools they need to observe and intervene before problems escalate, will also serve to prevent incidents where the future of a department could depend on the interpretations of video evidence.