Date of Degree
Cognition and Perception | Law and Psychology | Law Enforcement and Corrections | Psychology | Social Psychology
memory, judgment and decision-making, visual evidence, law, psychology
Aim: This dissertation examines people’s beliefs about police officer access to body-worn camera footage, people’s judgments of officer credibility as it relates to video footage, and the consequences that review of footage has on reporting accuracy.
Rationale: With escalating police-civilian tensions in 2014, American police departments adopted body-worn camera programs. A majority of departments have policies allowing officers unrestricted access to camera footage. Because officers fear that inconsistencies between reports and videos could result in suspicion of officer deceit, they argue that officers should have access to footage before writing their reports to ensure reports match the footage. Yet, because of practical and psychological reasons, the cameras will never perfectly match an officer’s exact experience. As such, unrestricted access to footage has legal implications, such as stifling the independence of evidence and altering officers’ initial perspective of incidents—a critical point considering that reasonableness of use of force is determined by an officer’s experience and perspective in the moment of the event (Graham v. Connor, 1989). There are also social implications to consider: Allowing unrestricted access may unduly enhance officer credibility instead of promoting accountability and transparency. Moreover, the policies may seem unfair to civilians who do not have similar access to footage, which could diminish community trust in the police. Alternatively, prohibiting unrestricted officer access to footage could lead officers to produce reports that differ—in legitimate ways—from the video footage, and these differences could impugn officers’ credibility in the eyes of the public and the law (Giglio v. United States, 1972). The work presented in this dissertation seeks to dissect these issues.
Methods: In Study 1, stakeholders (lay adults, law enforcement officers, researchers, and college students) responded to a 27-item survey examining beliefs about review of footage, including beliefs about officer memory and the strength of visual evidence. Participants also responded to demographic questions to determine whether individual differences influenced beliefs. In a vignette design, Study 2 examined the relationship between review policies, evidence consistency, and people’s self-other overlap with the police to determine whether these factors influenced beliefs in the credibility of the officer’s report. In this design, participants learned about a police encounter where the officer non-fatally shot the civilian and read the officer’s police report, stating that he believed the civilian was carrying a knife. I manipulated whether the officer provided his report before/after watching the camera footage and whether a knife was visible/not visible in the footage. Participants indicated the extent to which they trusted the officer’s report and the video, the extent to which they believed the officer, and they made punishment decisions. Finally, in Study 3, I conducted a three-group design to determine the effect that review and knowledge of recording has on reporting accuracy and perceptions of events. To test the effect of review, participants completed a videogame task that was screen recorded, and I manipulated whether participants reviewed their screen recording before or after responding to memory and perception questions it. To test the effect of recording on the accuracy of participants’ responses, I manipulated whether participants knew their videogame task was being screen recorded before or after responding to the dependent measures.
Results: In Study 1, I conducted an exploratory factor analysis (N = 260) to uncover an underlying structure of the 27 survey items, which produced four discrete factors. I examined whether the stakeholder groups responded differently to the four factors. Notably, I found that officers and adults agreed the most with unrestricted access to footage, while researchers disagreed the most. Adults believed the most strongly in officer memory ability and that inconsistencies between reports and footage are indications of officer deceit, while researchers disagreed the most. Study 2 showed that participants (N = 1,372) were not attuned to the issues of review as it related to officer credibility. However, inconsistent evidence led participants to trust the officer less and punish him more. In addition, despite not seeing the video, people trusted the video more than the report to describe what had occurred. Finally, the more participants reported to identify with police officers, the more they gave the officer the benefit of the doubt when they learned that the report was inconsistent with the video. Results from 208 participants in Study 3 demonstrated that review of footage did not necessarily guarantee that reports would perfectly align with what the video showed. Although participants who engaged in review before responding to the memory and perception questions provided more accurate responses, the majority of their responses were still significantly different from what occurred as demonstrated by the screen recording.
Implications: Although people are unaware of the legal and social implications of unrestricted access to footage, inconsistent evidence undermines people’s trust in officers and leads to greater punishment for the officer. However, results suggest that review of footage does not necessarily mean that reports will align with what the video shows. Given these findings, a consequence of fairer review policies (e.g., limiting officer access to footage) is that officers’ reports will at times, legitimately differ from videos, which may impugn officer credibility in the eyes of the public and may have legal implications for their testimony in court. Police departments should implement policies that will build overall community trust so that people are less suspicious of officers when their reports differ in legitimate ways from the video footage. Further, researchers should examine whether expert testimony and jury instructions can aid fact-finding accuracy—that is, assist jurors in understanding when they should believe police reports and when they should not believe police reports when they are discrepant with video footage.
Taken together, these results highlight the complexities of policy decisions by demonstrating that policy-makers must weigh body-worn camera review policies with an understanding of people’s beliefs about memory and visual evidence. Without a full appreciation of these underlying issues, departments and courts may implement policies that obviate the technology’s promise of improving policing, strengthening police-community relationships, and enhancing evidence in the legal system.
Jones, Kristyn A., "Pre-Report Review of Body-Worn Camera Footage: An Examination of Stakeholder Beliefs, Laypeople’s Judgments of Officer Credibility, and the Consequences for Memory" (2020). CUNY Academic Works.