Concerns with video evidence: Does video tell all?

There are several technical issues to consider when reviewing and using video evidence


By Michael Ranalli & Laura Scarry

Body-worn camera footage, surveillance videos and bystander recordings often take the spotlight after use of force incidents, making the rounds on the internet and in the courtroom. While video is generally seen as a reliable witness, providing an exact account of the incident, this may not always be the case. What you see is not necessarily what you get when it comes to video.

There are several technical concerns to consider when reviewing and using video evidence, including:

While video can provide a broad view of what happened, it cannot adequately show what the officers and subjects are focused on.
While video can provide a broad view of what happened, it cannot adequately show what the officers and subjects are focused on. (Police1)
  • Intentionally (or unintentionally) misleading video clips
  • Inability of video to capture psychological and physiological experiences
  • Video quality, placement and dimensions.

In our pursuit of the truth, we must remember video cannot tell us everything we need to know about an incident. Video is simply one of many tools in our search for the truth and we won’t always require video to find out what happened.

Misleading videos

Technical concerns with video evidence relate to the opportunity for what we see to be misleading or inaccurately perceived. It can be as simple as a shift in audio and visual synchronization or as complex as detailed editing. Timing and synchronization issues can even occur unintentionally as the video files are compressed or uploaded to various platforms. In use of force incidents specifically, timing is incredibly important in determining whether the use of force was excessive. Obtaining the original file can help to ensure the video reflects the incident as accurately as possible.

Video can also be misleading when there is a lack of context. When the viewer – whether a member of the public or the jury – is unaware of the situation surrounding an incident, it becomes all too easy to draw undue conclusions. Here, hindsight bias comes into play and can dramatically affect viewers’ reactions and decisions.

Perspectives & the human experience

While video can provide a broad view of what happened, it cannot adequately show what the officers and subjects are focused on or replicate the human psychological and physiological experience of the moment. When in stressful situations, humans often experience tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, concentrating their limited attention on the perceived threat. Video cannot capture the psychological processing that takes place, the body’s response to stimuli or the focused attention on specific areas of the event.

Solid video evidence can provide a portion of narrative truth of the events, but because video cannot adequately portray the human experience, the historical truth can quickly be lost. Both historical and narrative truth are relevant in determining the reasonableness of an officer’s actions, so video evidence, eyewitness accounts and other evidence must be taken into consideration.

Video quality

Recording quality can greatly influence the effectiveness and accuracy of video evidence. Lower quality video means various aspects of the incident, such as a weapon or slight or rapid movement, can become almost imperceptible. Typically, videos use “predictive frames,” showing changes detected from one frame of the video to the next, rather than fully rendering a new image for each frame. This translates to a decrease in accuracy against what was perceived and experienced by those physically at the incident.

Properly placing the recording device also impacts accuracy and reliability. Body-cams should be placed where they will not be blocked by the officer’s body, allowing an unobstructed view of the incident. The angle an event is recorded from can drastically alter depth and distance perception for viewers of the video. Surveillance cameras placed at an angle or with a wide-angle lens can significantly increase or decrease the perceived distance in the recording compared to the observed distance by those involved.

Finally, light and changes in lighting affect video quality, consistency and similarity to the human perspective. Sometimes, videos are able to pick up details in low light that people are unable to see or could not perceive in the moment. Other times, a rapid shift from daylight to darkness can cause the video to temporarily blackout, leaving a hole in the recording.

Each of these technical concerns should be taken into consideration when viewing and using video evidence. Video is a great tool for law enforcement, courts and communities, but should not be considered the final word on what happened. We must approach each recording critically, as we would any evidence, and assess its accuracy, relevance and role in every case.

To learn more about the technical and organizational limitations of video, check out our on-demand webinar, “Conclusive Evidence? Understanding the Limitations of Video Footage.”

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About the authors

Mike Ranalli, Esq., is a Program Manager II for Lexipol. He retired in 2016 after 10 years as chief of the Glenville (N.Y.) Police Department. He began his career in 1984 with the Colonie (N.Y.) Police Department and held the ranks of patrol officer, sergeant, detective sergeant and lieutenant. Mike is also an attorney and is a frequent presenter on various legal issues including search and seizure, use of force, legal aspects of interrogations and confessions, wrongful convictions, and civil liability. He is a consultant and instructor on police legal issues to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and has taught officers around New York State for the last 15 years in that capacity. Mike is also a past president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police, a member of the IACP Professional Standards, Image & Ethics Committee, and the former Chairman of the New York State Police Law Enforcement Accreditation Council. He is a graduate of the 2009 F.B.I.-Mid-Atlantic Law Enforcement Executive Development Seminar and is a Certified Force Science Analyst.

Laura Scarry is a partner with DeAno & Scarry, LLC and attorney for Lexipol. She served as a police officer for the city of Lake Forest, IL from 1986-1992. Since then, she’s built her law practice where she represents police officers, supervisors and agencies. The claims she covers include excessive and deadly force, search and seizure, malicious prosecution, failure to train, duty to protect, police pursuit, in-custody deaths and racial profiling. She is also a certified force science analyst.

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