Truth can be obscured by bodycam footage: research 17 December

A study on how viewing footage may affect a police officer’s statement about an event shows that footage does not always replicate what an officer experienced.

Reviewing police body-worn (‘bodycam’) videos can both enhance and detract from individual’s recollections of crimes, finds new research published in PLOS ONE.

In most instances, this practice enhanced the completeness and accuracy of an individual’s statements about a crime, according to the paper by Dr Helen Paterson, Miss Delene Adams and Associate Professor Hamish MacDougall from the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology.

Yet in other instances, individuals excluded true details because they were uncorroborated by the camera footage – what the researchers call “camera conformity”. This was evident when someone had pre-drafted statements, which they subsequently amended to agree with the footage.

The only evidence more powerful than ‘I saw it with my own eyes’ is ‘I have it recorded on camera’, yet our study shows that this approach can be flawed

Dr Helen Paterson

“The only evidence more powerful than ‘I saw it with my own eyes’ is ‘I have it recorded on camera’, yet our study shows that this approach can be flawed,” Dr Paterson, a Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology, said.

For example, in one instance, a participant accurately described viewing a drug deal in detail, however, this was not captured by the forward-facing bodycam because the participant’s head was turned to the side when they viewed the drug deal. After viewing the bodycam footage, the participant changed their statement to be consistent with the footage, removing all details relating to the drug deal.

“There is often undue pressure on police officers to give statements that conform to what is on camera,” Dr Paterson said.

“Our results suggest that in cases where it is crucial to understand an officer’s experience as the action unfolded, an initial statement made before the footage is reviewed may be an important first step, and bodycam footage should not necessarily be privileged over eyewitness testimony.”

Methodology

97 undergraduate student participants aged 17 to 42 were equipped with chest-mounted cameras as they viewed a simulated theft in virtual reality. One week later, half of the participants recalled the event in an initial statement while the other half did not.

Participants then viewed either their body-worn video or a control video. Finally, the participants who didn’t provide an initial statement provided one, while the ones who did were given the opportunity to amend their original account.

Bodycam facts

  • In NSW, police officers are required to review footage prior to providing statements.
  • In Victoria, bodycam footage can be edited before court cases, and complainants’ access to footage can be limited. Police officers cannot be compelled to release footage in civil proceedings.
  • There is no consistency worldwide regarding officers reviewing bodycam footage.


Declaration: This research did not receive any external funding.

Hero image credit: Queensland Police.

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