This Note discusses the implications of these findings for the policy debate over body-worn cameras, cautioning against the assumption that body cameras will reduce polarization and societal conflict following instances of use of deadly force by police. candidate; Yale University Department of Psychology, Ph. In December 2014, President Obama announced the Body Worn Camera Partnership Program, a new initiative to purchase fifty thousand body cameras for use by police officers across the country.1 The proposal was a response to the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager.
It concludes that we should be more skeptical of the widely held belief that video footage tells us unambiguously and definitively what happened. Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of Darren Wilson, a Caucasian police officer, sparked weeks of protests decrying police misconduct and racial profiling.2 The disputed circumstances surrounding Brown’s death polarized the nation.3 A poll administered in Ferguson three months after the shooting found that 71% of Caucasian respondents believed that Wilson was seriously injured before he shot Brown, whereas only 9% of African American respondents agreed.4 A nationwide poll found that Democrats were over three times more likely than Republicans to say that Wilson was at fault and deserved punishment.5 A grand jury decision not to indict Wilson sparked further protests and further polarization.
A Washington Post poll conducted after the non-indictment found that nearly 60% of Caucasian respondents approved of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, whereas fewer than 10% of African American respondents approved.6 Additionally, more than 75% of conservative Republicans approved of the decision, compared to 24% of liberal Democrats.7 Overall, 48% of the respondents approved of the decision and 45% disapproved.8 Many commentators lamented that if only the incident had been captured on camera, we could have known what happened and could have avoided the wrenching societal conflict over the shooting.9 A writer for Time magazine observed, “To many, a camera on Wilson’s uniform would have ended the uncertainty and potentially avoided the subsequent tumult that engulfed the St.
In the wake of national outrage and polarization over several high-profile police shootings of unarmed citizens, reformers have called for police officers to wear body cameras.
This Note argues that, despite the seeming objectivity of the camera, video footage remains susceptible to biased interpretation by observers such as grand jurors.
Reporting empirical findings based on mock jurors’ perceptions of real police footage, this Note observes that viewers’ prior attitudes toward the police color their interpretations of the events caught on tape, resulting in considerable polarization on a variety of dimensions.
Further, this Note finds that video evidence does not conclusively outperform nonvideo testimony in minimizing mock jurors’ reliance on their prior attitudes.
Study participants learned about an incident involving a police officer and a citizen in one of four ways.
Some participants watched a video of the altercation, others read dueling accounts of the altercation written from the perspectives of the police officer and of the citizen, a third group read a single account from the perspective of a disinterested third party, and a final group read only the police officer’s version of events.
Participants’ prior attitudes toward police significantly affected their judgments of the officer’s conduct in all four conditions, and the degree of bias did not differ significantly across the different types of evidence.
Furthermore, people who identified strongly with the police—but not those who identified weakly—became more confident in their judgments when presented with video evidence. I am deeply indebted to Tom Tyler, who generously supervised this Note; to Avani Sood, Yael Granot, Sara Burke, Jamie Luguri, Gina Roussos, Nicholas Santascoy, and Robert Manduca for insightful comments on previous drafts; to Hannah Thai for invaluable research assistance; and to John Rafael Perez, Rebecca Lee, Michael Clemente, and the editors of the Yale Law Journal for tremendously thoughtful editing.
In July, Staten Island resident Eric Garner was killed by New York Police Department (NYPD) officer Daniel Pantaleo, who sought to arrest Garner for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes.11 A video recorded by a bystander showed that Pantaleo put Garner in a chokehold, a maneuver banned by the NYPD, and ignored repeated pleas from Garner that he was unable to breathe.12 In November, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot by Cleveland police officers who mistook the boy’s pellet gun for a real firearm.13 Surveillance videos captured the shooting as well as the officers’ failure to administer timely first aid to the boy, who died the following day.14 In April 2015, Walter Scott was shot eight times in the back while fleeing from officer Michael Slager of the North Charleston Police Department, who had pulled Scott over for a broken taillight.15 Slager initially claimed that he had feared for his life, but an amateur video later surfaced showing that Scott was running away when Slager fired.16 As the list of African American men and boys killed by police grows steadily longer, fueling the Black Lives Matter protest movement, advocates for reform have enthusiastically embraced the idea of putting cameras on police officers.17 Reformers plainly expect that more video footage will lead to more indictments against officers who use excessive force.