The truths that police body cameras don’t reveal

By Val Van Brocklin

There has been much ADN coverage about the Anchorage Police Department’s use of body cameras in the wake of four officer-involved shootings since May. Kristopher Handy died in one of those incidents. When it became known that the statements of the officers differed from nearby surveillance video, public demand to see the officers’ body camera footage intensified. Then-APD Chief Bianca Cross said the body camera video would not be released until the completion of all investigations—by the state and APD.

Cross noted the video’s limitations,

“(It) does not capture many details to include what happened before the video was activated, what happened after the video was terminated and what happened outside the view of the camera.”

She also remarked on what the video could not convey,

“(Video) does not capture the human element of those involved to include their perception, what they see, what they hear, and what they know.”

There is another human truth that police body camera video cannot reveal — what those viewing the video perceive. People’s perceptions are not objective reality, but they are the person’s reality. And they are influenced by many factors.

Although limited, body camera video is impartial. People often are not — even when they try to be. We have amassed unique experiences that foster assumptions, motivations and ideologies that affect our perception of reality. Two studies illustrate this.

Researchers asked football fans from rival schools to watch a video of a game between the two schools’ teams. The home team saw the rival team make twice as many rule infractions as the rival team saw. Do the fans take this team loyalty bias into account? Not likely. Both groups are convinced they’re “right.”

In another study, two groups watched a video of a political protest. One group was told the protestors were demonstrating against abortion rights. The other group was told the protestors were demonstrating against the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Whether viewers perceived the protests as obstructing, intimidating and threatening depended on whether the protesters were in accord or discord with the viewers’ own opinions.

Many of us think our perception is more objective than everyone else’s so we conclude anyone who disagrees with us is unreasonable. Researchers call this “the illusion of objectivity.” It’s an illusion our U.S. Supreme Court also experiences.

In Scott v. Harris (2007), the Supreme Court addressed an officer’s use of deadly force against a high-speed driver. Ruling for the officer, the Supreme Court held “the videotape… speak(s) for itself”— “no reasonable jury” could conclude the driver did not pose a deadly risk.

Researchers subsequently showed the video to more than 1,000 members of the public and found a sizable minority disagreed with the Supreme Court’s conclusion.

Compounding our illusion of objectivity is our biased blind spot. We generally think we’re less biased than others. We also think our views are informed more by objective factors and less by political ideology. This blind spot adds to our view that people who disagree with us are unreasonable, ignorant, incompetent or misinformed.

The stronger our beliefs, the more they filter out evidence to the contrary and give more weight to evidence that supports them.

Participants in a study were presented with negative and positive scientific evidence about the deterrent effect of capital punishment. They selectively credited the evidence that confirmed their pre-existing belief and gave less or no credence to the contradictory evidence. And they doubled down on their beliefs — becoming more certain because science backed them up.

It isn’t a leap to think that body camera video, like scientific evidence, may deepen previously formed opinions and biases.

These subjective factors of perception (along with ratings) may explain why different media outlets report the news so differently, and how their viewers react to those reports.

I am all for police body cameras. Eighty-five percent of police surveyed also favor them. But body camera video won’t cleanse people of their life experiences or the biases and perceptions those experiences generate.

Only police legitimacy will do that. Officers will have to be perceived as fair and impartial for their body camera video to be viewed similarly.

Research establishes people care more about how police treat them than the result of the encounter. Officers who let citizens voice their views, are respectful, make decisions fairly, and give explanations for their actions are seen as wielding more legitimate authority.

Lt. Chad Goeden, former Alaska Department of Public Safety Academy Commander, explained to me, it’s not if there’s going to be a use-of-force incident — it’s when. He tried to get recruits to see most police-citizen encounters as a chance to make a deposit or withdrawal of trust toward the day they would be judged in such an incident.

Citizens should also examine their biases before judging the police. Humans experience hard-wired “fight or flight” physical reactions to perceived threats. Officers don’t have the option to flee. They must confront danger to keep the public safe. We must remain open-minded and open-hearted to the circumstances they faced when they used force.

Community activist and police critic, Rev. Jarrett Maupin, agreed to join deputies in Phoenix, Arizona in a force-on-force training drill. He was changed by the real-life scenarios. After being shot in one scenario, and shooting an unarmed man in another, Rev. Maupin said his biggest takeaway was,

“(A)fter going through this; yes, my attitude has changed, this happens in 10-15 seconds. People need to comply for their own sake.”

And officers need to ensure their legitimacy by making daily trust deposits in their encounters with citizens.

Police body camera video can be helpful, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

This article was originally printed in the Anchorage Daily News. Reprinted with permission by the author.