Police body cameras: Do they tell the whole story?

Camera's point of view might change observer's perspective, expert says

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As police officers in Jacksonville begin wearing body cameras, it appears recorded footage might not always give investigators the evidence they need to prove a crime was committed.

Seth Stoughton, a former Tallahassee police officer who is now a University of South Carolina assistant law professor, is an expert on body cameras. During a presentation at the State Attorney's Office in Jacksonville, he showed several examples of body camera videos that could fool the average observer.

Stoughton said perspective can be misleading because different points of view might show different things. One camera might show a suspect holding what appears to be a firearm, while another angle shows the object is not harmful.

Because of the different perspectives, Stoughton said body camera video should be the only piece of evidence used to prosecute a case.

"I don't think video is stronger or weaker inherently than any other form evidence," Soutghton said. "What I worry about is the tendency for lawyers, jurors and judges to assume that video is a stronger, more reliable form of evidence."

Another issue, Stoughton said, is officers might only record an interaction with a suspect. The events leading up to the interaction might not be recorded.

"If an officer turns on their video camera in the middle of an interaction, we're missing what they did beforehand that may have potentially created a bad situation," Stoughton said. "Video, like any other evidence, you have to weigh it. You have to test it. You have to realize what's in it and what's not in it."

Other challenges, Stoughton said, include:

  • Camera obstruction: The camera’s view may be obscured
  • Non-visual events: Tactile or auditory information that cannot be seen
  • Cognitive biases: When presented with incomplete information, people’s brains tend to fill in the gaps with their own narrative, for better or worse
  • Illusory causation: When the camera is focused on something, you assume they are the cause of what you are watching
  • Deceptive deliberation: Slow motion footage increases viewers’ perceived intent of movements/actions seen on video
  • Deceptive intensity: Video can appear more intense than it actually was

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