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Can we view police body cam evidence objectively?

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

There has been a lot of focus in the country recently on the #BlackLivesMatter and the #DefundthePolice movements. Seeing videos capturing police acting violently against citizens leads to the question of when we can trust police officers’ judgments about using force.

In Subjective Interpretation of “Objective” Video Evidence: Perceptions of Male Versus Female Police Officers’ Use-of-Force, Salerno and Sanchez (2020) examined whether the public’s perceptions of the justification of a police officers’ use of force varied based on the officer’s gender or race. All participants watched a low-quality video of an arrest. Half of the videos involved a forceful and half were peaceful. Then participants saw a picture of a police officer who they were told was the one in the video. These pictures either included a White or a Black officer and either a male or female officer. Participants were then asked to rate their perceptions of the arrest in 3 different categories:

1. Effectiveness of the officer

2. Trust in the officer

3. Explanation of use of force – for this category, researchers were interested in whether participants focused on the individual officer (e.g., the officer is naturally more aggressive; internal attribution) or focused on the situation (e.g., the situation was dangerous; external attributions).

In general, people reacted more negatively to the forceful arrest than the peaceful arrest. This was true for both Black and White officers. However, people appeared to be more lenient with female officers using force. They believed the female officer was more effective, more trustworthy, and was reacting more to the situation (i.e., more external attributions) than when the officer was male. Salerno & Sanchez (2020) believed that this might be a result of gender stereotypes - we typically do not expect women to express anger, dominance, or aggressive behavior, so it is possible that seeing a female officer exerting force can influence you to believe she did so because she had to. Male officers, who stereotypically are expected to be aggressive and dominant, do not defy stereotypes when exerting force during an arrest.

This study suggests that while forceful arrests might be seen negatively generally, the exact same arrest might be perceived differently based on stereotypes or characteristics of the officers involved. The results of this study highlight that the legal system must be aware that even “objective evidence” such as a videotape can be skewed by the subjective perceptions and biases of the person watching. Keep this in mind the next time you see a video regarding a police officer’s use-of-force.

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