Document Type

Article

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Margaret Gruter Prize (D. Kahan, R. Burt, T. Tyler) (Best paper on how ethology, biology, and related behavior sciences may deepen our understanding of law)

Abstract

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 observers 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. This Note discusses the implications of these findings for the policy debate over bodyworn cameras, cautioning against the assumption that body cameras will reduce polarization and societal conflict following instances of use of deadly force by police. It concludes that we should be more skeptical of the widely held belief that video footage tells us unambiguously and definitively what happened.

Date of Authorship for this Version

2016

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