Monday, August 29, 2016

'Body Camera Obscura': Videos of police violence and matters of perspective

Image from fatal police shooting in Palestine, TX, 2015.
Those thinking through the implications of police body-camera policies and procedures may find useful this academic article I read over the weekend from Georgia State law prof Caren Myers Morrison, titled "Body Camera Obscura: The Semiotics of Police Video." Her analysis takes a step back from legalistic controversies to think more deeply about how meaning is derived from video images of police violence, particularly in courtroom settings. "Using insights from semiotics, film criticism, cultural theory, and cognitive psychology, [the article attempts] to sketch out a more nuanced way of approaching video evidence in the context of these cases. The aim of this article is primarily descriptive and diagnostic: we are in danger of misunderstanding a new source of evidence in these hotly contested cases, and making an already permissive standard even more lax." As things stand, she wrote, "Courts seem remarkably unsophisticated and credulous when dealing with video evidence."

"A bit of a touchy-feely approach for my tastes," Grits thought upon seeing the title and abstract, but Morrison has produced a thoughtful and useful piece that systematically runs through various strains of bias which can infect those interpreting video and result in different types of errors. "Because video evidence is so emotionally compelling," she wrote, "it makes factfinders vulnerable to a host of biases, including naïve realism, or the belief that what one sees is the uncontroverted truth, the inability to recognize the role of subjectivity, the fragmentation of perspective, and identification bias." The article then discusses each of those in turn in the specific context of police body cameras - a valuable contribution.

One critique I don't agree with: The author writes that the "unquestionable usefulness of video recordings comes with a dark side; cases without video now tend to be devalued and overlooked by the public." Of course, that's true, but it's not necessarily problematic.

Grits' own criminal-justice reform work began in response to a string of bad police shootings and misconduct in Austin in the mid-1990s. In 1997 I launched a now-defunct site called the Austin Police Department Hall of Shame, which documented sustained misconduct and questionable use-of-force incidents by Austin police officers, expanding the work statewide in 2000 into a site called the Texas Police Reform Center. (That site shut down when Grits for Breakfast launched in 2004.)

So, having spent years trying to convince the public to care about police misconduct in the pre-cell phone era (I was director of the Police Accountability Project at ACLU of Texas for seven years, 2000-2006), Grits can say with confidence that, before cell-phone and dash cam video, those cases were devalued and overlooked anyway, going back many generations. Without video, even convincing people there was a problem was a difficult slog. It wasn't real to the white public until they could see it with their own eyes. And a glimpse of the truth is better than no access to it at all. With video, the public ignores cases without video; without video, they ignore these issues entirely.

Regardless, lots of other interesting stuff here. This discussion of the implications of Morrison's humanities-based approach gives a flavor:
Police video is video recorded by the police in the course of their official duties, either via dashboard-mounted cameras (“dash cams”) or body-worn cameras (“body cams”). Eyewitness video, often recorded on a cellphone, is taken by bystander-witnesses or victims, either spontaneously or as part of a Copwatching program. These two types of videos offer contrasting narratives. Police video tends to recirculate dominant narratives of violence and masculinity as heroic ideals that coexist easily with the legal standard of the reasonable officer. In contrast, the perspective in eyewitness videos typically challenges those narratives and offers the counter-narrative of an abusive state.

The malleability of video in the context of police use-of-force cases has been apparent since a primarily white state jury found four white Los Angeles police officers not guilty of unlawfully assaulting black motorist Rodney King in 1991, despite a video capturing the beating. Arguably, this was because video recordings don’t actually show the “truth” of any interaction— they are inherently indeterminate. Video will reflect a different reality depending not only on who is watching, but also on who is recording. Therefore, in the context of police violence cases, legal actors need to view images with greater skepticism, and be aware of the competing narratives they offer.

While images have evidentiary value, they also have cultural currency. There is a tension between the use of video as “both evidence and a call to action,” on the one hand, and as entertainment, recycling a historical spectacle of black victimhood, on the other.  Because the paradigmatic video is that of a black man shot by the police, these images reflect back to us our feelings about violence, race, masculinity, and the law, and how we believe they should interact.  But the salience of the videos that make news headlines tends to focus attention on the worst kinds of police violence, and their shock value may distract us from thinking more deeply about systemic questions that go beyond individual encounters.
Not sure I completely agree that bodycam footage always portrays officers as a hero, but it's inarguable that they only show one perspective, and not always a determinative one. I also agree that focusing on the most extreme cases discourages deeper systemic thinking, in much the same way that myopic focus on death-penalty cases overlooks problems in the far-more-vast non-capital parts of the system.

"Video evidence is at its most powerful and least ambiguous when it can contradict a false account given by the police," she noted - an effect entirely obviated by policies that allow officers to see the footage and other evidence against them before answering questions from police investigators. But in more ambiguous, workaday cases, "video evidence needs interpretation just as much, if not more than any other type of evidence."

The SCOTUS standard applied in police use of force cases "does not take into account the police officer’s actions in precipitating the confrontation," the author observed, leading to allegations that the standard "condones unnecessary violence" by ignoring the officer's role in getting to that point. The standard focuses only on the split second in which the officer makes the decision to fire, not "what went before."
For all of its benefits, video evidence encourages this atomization of facts, literally focusing the factfinder on the narrowest of moments in the encounter. When examining police video, particularly body cam video, the legal standard melds with the perspective of video, reducing a confrontation informed by many factors to a simple matter of whether the officer might plausibly have been in fear for his life at that one moment. This is where the “deceptive intensity” of video evidence can be problematic. If police video can heighten the sense of danger to the officer, it may place a thumb on the scale in favor of the officer in the eyes of many viewers.
The meat of the article examines case studies exemplifying various types of biases and showing how subjective interpretation colors every image, whether it's police, prosecutors, courts or the public doing the interpreting. Police body cams are new, but theoretical work regarding how people interpret moving images extends back a century. Grits learned a few things seeing the latter applied to the former.

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