What use of force investigators need to know about bodycam video analysis
Video evidence “proves” only what occurred, not what was perceived
Video is a major component in the space we operate in. Video and audio evidence provide additional information when we review an officer’s decisions and actions during critical events and especially the use of force.
We cannot assume that those investigating police use of force know what they don’t know. In the field of force investigations and review, it is not a malicious act to “not know” but it is a malicious act to “not learn.”
What does bodycam video prove?
“It is also pretty hard to prove that you thought someone was armed when your body-worn camera proves that you saw the gun was dropped before you kept chasing after them.”
This statement comes from a write-up regarding the Williams v. City of Burlington, 27 F.4th 1346 (8th Cir. 2022). This viewpoint is a dangerous outlook on the use of BWC evidence.
Body-worn camera footage does not prove what an individual perceived, or what that individual’s focus of attention was at any given moment. Body-worn camera footage only proves in hindsight that “something occurred.”
Bodycam footage showing a gun was dropped does not prove that this was observed by the individuals in the incident simply because the video recorded the visual data. Focus of attention is more than just visual, it can be any perceivable information that draws attention. What we “attend to” or “pay attention to” is the data an individual encodes and can recall in an incident. An individual remembers only what they were paying attention to, and that is a significant human limitation, especially in a critical incident.
The difference between video analysis and video examination
Let’s take a moment to review the difference between Forensic Video Analysis (FVA) and Forensic Video Examination (FVE).
FVA looks intently at the technical aspect of digital video evidence. Things like frame rate, aspect ratio, lighting and potential distortions inherent in the video and produced by the encoding process. This is an extremely important component when there is video evidence from a critical incident, especially one in which the decisions made by the officers are under the constraints of time, and the distortions can affect time, distance, speed and motion.
FVE is the examination of the video evidence in a case with an underpinning to a particular specialized knowledge or expertise. As an example, being specially trained and certified as an analyst in police performance issues, decision-making in critical police actions, or police use of force, there are very specific concerns regarding the video evidence and the potential distortions therein. In FVE the analysis is more about the behavior of the actors in the video with expertise particular to the subject matter being analyzed, but with a full understanding of the technical limitations and/or issues inherent in the video evidence itself.
FVE reviews bodycam video though the lens of understanding police performance issues and human limitations, while FVA reviews bodycam video from a technical perspective regarding video performance and video limitations.
For nearly a decade I have been deeply involved in the forensic analysis and examination of video related to police use of force.
I want to talk about a “hypothetical” case related to an officer’s decisions and actions during a violent contact with a suspect.
After I completed a thorough examination, I believe the officer’s actions were in response to actions the officer reasonably believed and articulated could have caused serious bodily harm or death to the officer(s).
This incident was captured on video with a clearly definable audio stream from two separate perspectives. The visual and audible evidence was authentic and verified, statements were made by the officers – including excited utterances captured on the officer’s BWC – and voluntary statements were made to investigators assigned to the case.
In the aftermath of the incident, due to what I believe to be a lack of experience and knowledge in the District Attorney’s review and analysis of video evidence, officers are fighting not only for their jobs but possibly their freedom. These officers are being charged with crimes allegedly committed while in the course of their duties as sworn officers. Why is this happening, not only in this case but across the country
The reason I believe officers in this hypothetical case are being charged with crimes is that a review of their statements did not align with what the video is believed to represent. What does this mean in the reality of officers being charged? These are some questions that must be considered by law enforcement professionals:
- Who is reviewing the video and what is their related experience?
- What lens is the video being viewed through? This means what is the role, purpose and function of the review?
- What technical knowledge does the person conducting the review have in terms of FVA and FVE?
- Is the review resulting in an assumption concerning the outcome rather than an assessment of the data?
- What is the defining difference between an assumption and an assessment?
Human performance dynamics
Everyone in the field of law enforcement should learn how human performance dynamics affect an officer’s decision-making process, memory and ability to provide a complete account of an incident. This includes the officer working the street, the investigator working the scene, the chief or sheriff making decisions, the union and city attorneys who represent those whose decisions and actions are in question, and, the authorities and prosecutors who must question the decisions and actions of those officers who are under the lens of scrutiny.
It is not enough for any involved individual to simply “look” at a video and make assumptions; this goes for the officer involved and the investigators who are gathering data after the fact.
It begins with the officer’s account of the incident; the officer must be cognizant of their own perspectives and the limitations that occur from the inherent issues encompassing attentional issues and be capable of providing a complete account from their perspective.
The investigator must gather comprehensive data to elicit a complete account of the incident, keeping in mind that attentional issues exist and may affect the perceived alignment of statements with the video.
Those who review the data must consider the perspective of those involved, including the involved officer and the investigative process.
And, those making decisions regarding the incident, should be aware of the potential misalignment between the evidence, the statements and the outcome. Please consider that a misalignment of this sort is rarely an honesty issue.
The officer’s statements are generated from their role in the incident from the “inside of the pipe.” “The pipe” depicts the officer’s focus during the incident. This theory is eloquently described by the noted human factors researcher Sydney Dekker in “The Field Guide to Understanding Human Error.”
Assumptions occur when the reviewer is outside of the pipe and does not consider the attentional factors that are relevant to the officer’s decisions that are being made not from an understanding of the outcome but an understanding of the potential outcome. The outcome is only known to those examining the incident after the fact from outside of the pipe. This assumes all things known after the incident were somehow known by the officer making decisions with little to no information.
In my review of this “hypothetical” case, I looked at all of the evidence, read all of the statements and developed a common thread connection to what the evidence represented and what the descriptions of the event were by the officers involved. The statements and descriptions of the incident were certainly more intense from the officer’s perspective than they appeared to be from the perspective of a review from the cozy confines of a desk. That is because the perspective from the officer’s point of view is more intense. The experience, in reality, is far different from the review of the experience.
Officers are being charged because someone, somewhere, after the fact, thinks the officer should have or could have done something differently “hypothetically.” This is true in every case! Something could always have been achieved with a different decision that would certainly have “hypothetically” changed the outcome.
The hypothetical approach has an infinite number of pathways with no possible way to know what the outcome would have been if the officer(s) would have chosen a different path. And as reviewers, we certainly cannot presume that our prediction of what should have or could have been done would generate a desirable outcome.
We must collect complete data, review and analyze the data set and get complete information, when possible, from the officer(s) involved. We must consider the limitations in the evidence and the limitations in human performance and how those may collide with other aspects of the investigation and the final assessment. Only then can we provide a full assessment to the decision-makers.
We should all strive to get training in areas that we are familiar with to get another perspective on the information. We learn from every class we attend, every conversation we engage in, every case we review, and every time we teach or share knowledge. Keep the conversations going, keep the education rich through experience, and stay engaged with what you think you know to discover what you do not know.