Bodycam Videos and Honest Accountability

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Following the release of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Report, body cameras were increasingly touted as a deterrent to unnecessary use of force by police.1 Discussions surrounding the role of police video often ignored video’s most intuitive benefit, that is, capturing evidence of disorderly, resistive, and criminal conduct within the community. Instead, video technology was emphasized as a tool for achieving police “accountability, transparency, and legitimacy.”23

Without question, “accountability” and “transparency” are vital to an ordered society.  However, their timing and placement as top priorities of reform activists and politicians served as a not-so-subtle indictment of law enforcement.  Calls for accountability did more than imply police were routinely getting away with misconduct; they were often coupled with express accusations of murder, even in cases where racism and misconduct had been ruled out.

Despite the controversial motivation of police reform efforts, body camera videos continued to garner support from all sides of the law enforcement, political, and social justice (activist/academic) communities. 

Proponents of police reform believed that body-cameras would capture or deter unnecessary use of force, negligent tactics, and the disparate treatment of minorities.  Of course, with tens (if not hundreds) of millions of police contacts each year, it is inevitable that cameras will continue to record statistically rare instances of unprofessional and criminal police conduct.

That said, the culture of policing remains overwhelmingly one of selfless service, compassion, and respect for all community members.4 President Obama conceded that “[t]he overwhelming majority of police officers do an incredibly hard and dangerous job fairly and professionally.…”5 That sentiment was echoed by President Biden, who acknowledged, “The vast majority of law enforcement officers do these difficult jobs with honor and integrity, and they work diligently to uphold the law and preserve the public’s trust.”6

A Vision for Policing

President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Report (2015) cast his vision for American policing, and body cameras were expected to play an important role in its execution.

In support of his recommendations, Obama relied, in part, on a 2014 report titled, Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned.”7 The report resulted from a joint effort between the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office).

In their 2014 report, PERF and DoJ focused primarily on policy issues such as when to activate the body camera, how long to retain the videos, privacy considerations, officer review protocols, and disclosure guidelines. The complex issues of video technology and human performance had yet to be meaningfully addressed by PERF in its drive toward transparency and accountability.

Transparency and Accountability

As calls for police accountability increased, Dr. Bill Lewinski, the executive director and senior researcher at Force Science, immediately recognized the challenges that widespread public release of police videos could create. Dr. Lewinski recalled his initial concerns,

“Even in 2014, I supported the need for transparency in policing. But it wasn’t clear to me how simply releasing police videos into the public was going to improve community trust, especially when the public conversations around policing had become so tense, polarizing, and even volatile in some places.”

Dr. Lewinski continued,

“When we founded Force Science, it was to ensure that police were being evaluated fairly and that they faced only honest accountability. That meant police performance should only be evaluated after understanding and considering the human factors that influence sensemaking, decision-making and performance.”

Lewinski explained,

“It was the same thing with video evidence. Honest accountability requires the viewer first to understand the limitations of that technology. In other words, we all need to know what we can and what we cannot expect videos to tell us. Unfortunately, even today, it isn’t just the general public who lacks these insights. Most lawyers, academics, and even police leaders we train and consult with do not understand the differences between recording technology and the human experience. Without this knowledge, videos can provide a very different and often incorrect understanding of a force encounter. Without this knowledge, the widespread release of police video in the name of transparency can effectively undermine community trust.”

Preparing to Join the Discussion

In January of 2015, Dr. Lewinski was invited to support Pres. Obama’s Task Force as a member of the Body Cameras—Research and Legal Considerations panel. By then, Force Science had been considering the proper role of video evidence for over a decade and hoped their insights might help shape the federal response.

Dr. Lewinski described the road that prepared Force Science to join the national discussion,

“In 2007, we published The Camera Doesn’t Lie, Right? which was our early attempt to warn of the dangers of relying on videos without understanding their limitations.  Over time, we saw the need for agencies to balance social, legal, and human performance—particularly memory implication—in deciding when officers should view their videos following critical incidents.  Our early recommendations were captured in Should Officers See Video Of Their Encounters? (2009).”

Dr. Lewinski explained his recommendations,

“We knew the decision to view video involved more than just memory and human performance considerations.  Community trust, legal, and even mental health concerns would play a role.  For that reason, we recommended that if officers give statements without first watching the videos, those officers should be allowed to view their video soon after the interview and then given a chance to provide an additional report or statement.  This hybrid approach seemed to satisfy the attorneys who wanted to capture the officer’s perspective before introducing the influence of video.” 

Dr. Lewinski understood that body camera guidelines were important.  Still, in 2009, he continued to zero in on human performance issues and the risks associated with using video to evaluate force encounters,

“Where discrepancies exist, investigators need to be knowledgeable and sensitive enough, in the absence of other incriminating evidence, to explain to the officer, the administration, and the public how an officer’s perception of an incident can be vastly different from what’s seen on a video recording and still be legitimate.”

Discrepancies between body camera videos and an officer’s report should be expected. However, explaining these discrepancies can be challenging, especially to those who are determined to prove the officer is lying. Although lying is certainly on the list of reasons videos might not align with an officer’s statement, these discrepancies overwhelmingly result from the technological limitations of video and the reality that cops are not cameras.

To help explain why videos may not always align with an officer’s perception and memory of an event, Force Science published Do Head Cameras Always See What You See In A Force Encounter? (2010) and 10 Limitations Of Body Cams You Need To Know For Your Protection (2014). These articles continued to emphasize that videos cannot be used as a proxy for an officer’s experience—a lesson that was important in 2014 and continues to demand our attention a decade later.

2024: What Have We Learned?

In their recently released report, Body-worn Cameras a Decade Later, What We Know (2023), PERF continued to explore how body camera programs might support their vision of transparency, accountability, and legitimacy (community trust). To date, the research has provided, at best, mixed results, with a 2020 meta-analysis finding that “body-worn cameras (BWCs) do not have clear or consistent effects on most officer or citizen behaviors…”8

The PERF report and accompanying citations deserve a close read, as PERF provides their understanding of the latest research. Although PERF continues to focus primarily on body-worn camera policies and program implementation, some of its members paused to highlight the differences between video and the human experience.

Dr. Lorie Fridell, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Criminology at the University of South Florida and former Director of Research at PERF, was recognized for calling attention to the fallibility of both human perception and BWC video. Dr. Fridell cautioned that neither video nor officers will pick up every aspect of a critical incident. Dr. Fridell was quoted in the report, “In looking at potential discrepancies between [videos and officer perception], we recognize the fallibility of both sources. The discrepancy is not necessarily nefarious. It’s just a product of the limitations of the technology and the limitations of the human mind.”

Essential insights, like those provided by Dr. Fridell, convinced PERF to reconsider their 2014 recommendation regarding when officers should view bodycam videos. In their latest report, PERF has adopted the “hybrid” approach detailed by Force Science in 2007.9

Not Fit for the Purpose

As 2023 ended, Force Science predicted that bodycam videos would remain one of the top criminal justice issues in 2024.  Outside researchers are expected to continue monitoring body cameras’ influence on police and community behaviors.  PERF’s latest report provides extensive references for those interested in these deterrent effects.

While PERF and other researchers focus on policy recommendations, Force Science will continue to drive criminal justice practitioners toward a greater understanding of how video technology and human performance intersect during force encounters.

The persistent and ever-widening use of video evidence to evaluate force encounters has made it imperative that the community, courts, and cops understand the advantages and limitations of video and the reality of human performance. 

The challenge will be to convince those who believe video alone is sufficient to evaluate an officer’s perception and judgment that videos are not fit for that purpose.

In a recent Force Science study (pending publication 2024), officers wore eye trackers and body-worn cameras as they responded to a simulated critical incident. The eye tracker video and the body camera video were then compared. For the first time, we now have definitive evidence that body camera video does not capture all of the information available to the officer. In fact, when evaluating the critical elements of the scenario, an overwhelming majority of the information (est. 76%) perceived and relied on by officers in their decision-making was not captured on the body camera.

When we evaluate force encounters, we often rely on the work of Dr. Marc Green and others to explain why officers may not have seen information that was captured on video or perceived by other witnesses.10 This research will remain critical to understanding the differences between video recordings and human perception. What has not been emphasized enough is that, while we know officers do not perceive everything on the video, the video does not record much of what the officer IS seeing!

Beyond Video Literacy

If video is intended as a tool to increase transparency and support honest accountability, then viewers need to not only be “video literate,” they need to understand police practices, threat assessments, law, de-escalation, persuasion, and the reality of human performance.

That said, video literacy is a necessary component of these assessments.  So, what does it mean to be video literate in the context of force encounters?

First, videos cannot be used as a proxy for the officer’s experience, perception, or sensemaking.  If the video is used to evaluate an officer’s decision-making, viewers must understand the limitations of recording technology.  They must understand that an officer’s focused vision is extremely limited and does not include all the information within the four corners of their monitors.

Video-literate viewers will understand that information on the bodycam is irrelevant if the officer was not focused on it. They will understand how the camera’s lens can make people appear farther or closer, faster or slower–and even allow us to see in the dark.

Video-literate viewers will understand how perception, decision-making, and performance are influenced by stress. They will recognize that their video review is occurring rationally, while people involved in critical incidents are likely engaged in fast and frugal (“system 1”) decision-making. And they will understand that humans experience (make sense of) the world through feelings and meaning (“gist”)—making precise recall of distances, quotes, and frequency of action nearly impossible.

Exploiting Naivete

Video evidence will continue to play a central role in police investigations and litigation. Unfortunately, naïve stakeholders, including community members, police executives, attorneys, judges, and expert witnesses continue to believe that “the video doesn’t lie” and that they don’t need an expert to tell them what they can see with their own eyes.

In an effort to hold officers “accountable,” there are those who would seek to exploit the limitations of human perception, the technological advantages of video, and the ignorance of those not yet video literate. Many will ignore the reality of decision-making under stress and attempt to persuade jurors, judges, and communities that bodycam video is an accurate record of what the officer knew or should have known. It is not—and to continue to spread this disinformation is a gross violation of community trust, procedural justice, and honest accountability.

  1. https://www.ojp.gov/ncjrs/virtual-library/abstracts/final-report-presidents-task-force-21st-century-policing []
  2. See Police Executive Research Forum Report, Body-Worn Cameras A Decade Later: What We Know, December 2023 (“In a 2015 nationally representative survey PERF conducted of 1,203 municipal police agencies, nearly 92 percent of respondents indicated that their primary reason for deploying BWCs was to promote accountability, transparency, and legitimacy.”). []
  3. Id. at 7 (In response to a 2014 survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, the anticipated benefits of bodycams were “strengthening police accountability, preventing confrontational situations by causing individuals on both sides of the camera to moderate their behavior, resolving officer-involved incidents and complaints, improving agency transparency, identifying and correcting internal agency problems, and strengthening officer performance.” []
  4. According to the Department of Justice (DoJ), of the approximately 54 million people reporting contact with the police in 2020, 99% did not feel there was any police misconduct involved. Even among U.S. residents stopped on the street by police, over 91% experienced either no enforcement action or received a warning. See https://bjs.ojp.gov/library/publications/contacts-between-police-and-public-2020 []
  5. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/07/12/remarks-president-memorial-service-fallen-dallas-police-officers []
  6. [1] E.O. 14074 of May 25, 2022, Advancing Effective, Accountable Policing and Criminal Justice Practices To Enhance Public Trust and Public Safety []
  7. Lindsay Miller and Jessica Toliver, Implementing a Body-Worn Camera Program: Recommendations and Lessons Learned (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2014), vii, http://ric-zai-inc.com/Publications/cops-p296-pub.pdf. []
  8. Lum C, Koper CS, Wilson DB, et al. Body‐worn cameras’ effects on police officers and citizen behavior: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews. 2020;16:e1112. https://doi.org/10.1002/cl2.111 []
  9. The costs, benefits, and tradeoffs of when officers view video continues to be contentious, and Force Science recognizes that the answer to that question may very well come down to such details as who is conducting the interview, the purpose of the interview, and the intended use of the statement.  These are often critical decisions to be made by officers and agencies after consultation with their legal advisors, who may know best how their communities, courts, and police agencies will respond to these policies and practices. []
  10. See, 33 Reasons for Not Seeing (from Green, M.A. (2018). Roadway human factors: From science to
    application. Lawyers & Judges Publishing Company, Inc.); See also Granot, Y., Balcetis, E., Feigenson, N., & Tyler, T. (2018). In the eyes of the law: Perception versus reality in appraisals of video evidence. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 24(1), 93–104. https://doi.org/10.1037/law0000137 []
7 Responses
  1. Great piece. Great historical perspective of BWCs (and what/who inspired their implementation). BWCs continue to be “rolled out” in jurisdictions under the auspices of “public trust” and “accountability”, yet I have not reviewed many use-of-force-related incidents that were not on already “captured” on video (usually multiple sources – i.e., BWCs, in-car systems, cel phones, fixed-location CCTV cameras, etc.), Cops KNOW they are on-camera EVERYWHERE they go (and have known this for many years). So, to suggest that strapping on a BWC is somehow novel (and behaviour-altering) in the mind of a cop, would be naïve at best. I am also seeing millions of dollars being invested into these camera systems and the supporting infrastructure (in a society where cameras are ALREADY ubiquitous), at the expense of officers patrolling the streets (at a time when most police agencies are already vastly under-strength). People can’t seem to draw a nexus between these competing interests. Perhaps we should consider strapping BWCs onto the likes of auto repair people, sedation dentists, Hollywood producers, politicians, and hedge fund managers, BEFORE we strap them on cops, who are already under greater scrutiny (usually multiple levels) than any other profession in the world!

  2. Really. Officer, you give us a statement and then we will let you watch the video. Now officer, you said this in your sworn statement, that this occurred and the video shows that it did not, so are you not telling the truth? You have people making decisions on the use of force, that have never been out on the street, never been assaulted and never been shot at. Oh the video shows this, that, is awful. Give a statement and then see the video and then give another statement after the fact. I can see a good defense attorney putting that, right up the dark hole.

    1. Von Kliem

      For sure, opposing attorneys are going to gain as much traction as possible from any discrepancies. And in every case, the officer will learn about them. The question becomes, when should the officer and their attorney get their first chance to consider and effectively respond to the allegations of deception. Some attorneys want to control the timing and setting for their client’s video review and so want to see the video themselves, before the officer. There seems to be three main approaches to the disclosure issue that come down to the sophistication of the attorney and the motives and purpose of the investigation. It seems each position involves tradeoffs. I’m a fan of leaving up to the officer’s attorney who knows the jurisdiction and agency. Not a satisfying answer I know.

  3. Thank you for your research and publishing this article. It should be read by police administrators and I.A.B. investigators who are involved in use of force investigations. I speak from experience as a former I.A.B. investigator who investigated use of force complaints and O.I.S. After my LEO retirement I served as a police union representative for 11 years and represented officers involved in use of force complaints and O.I.S. IMO, the involved officer(s) should be allowed to view the BWC video to accurately document their report, as well as reviewing the video before being interviewed by supervisors or I.A.B. In Florida if the officer’s actions are subject to potential discipline, all evidence including video must be provided to the officer for review before he/she provides a statement, written or audio, F.S.S. chapter 112.

  4. Don Black

    As the author states, a problem that now exists is that prosecutors, judges, the media and even police chiefs believe that they can make judgments based strictly upon what they see on the video. As someone who has been involved in use of force cases as an expert witness, I have found this to be a grave error. The judge now decides that he can make new rules on use of force just based upon his uninformed opinion. As the author states, you have to be familiar with use of force, the officer’s training and all of the human factors involved. Unfortunately, all of these people (prosecutors, judges, media, and chiefs) now feel they can make decisions without listening to any expert opinion. As most of us know, police administrators are often not very experienced in the real life use of force that street officers face. They got to the top through political influence and not through long dedication to the job and all of its different aspects. They are usually generalists with little specialized knowledge. They have had many nice, short assignments just to pad their resumes.

    Further, I would have to agree that officers should be able to view their BWC before writing a report. Anyone who has been involved in highly stressful events realizes that the pieces come together over time in your memory. It is unfair to believe that you will remember every little step without time or something to jog your memory. Many times, much after the fact, I can remember saying “Oh yeah, that was when he did that”.

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