Do Police Body Cameras Provide an Impartial Version of Events?
Skip to content
Podcast | Insight Unpacked Season 1: Extraordinary Brands and How to Build Them
Policy Marketing Social Impact Apr 4, 2019

Do Police Body Cameras Provide an Impartial Version of Events?

New research reveals that people assign blame differently after viewing body cam versus dash cam footage.

An interaction is seen through a police dashboard camera and a police body camera.

Michael Meier

Based on the research of

Broderick Turner

Eugene Caruso

Mike Dilich

Neal J. Roese

Police shootings of unarmed black men have become increasingly scrutinized in recent years. With that scrutiny has come a frequent demand that officer activity be videotaped, whether with body cameras or dashboard cameras in squad cars.

Add Insight
to your inbox.

The goal of this footage, of course, is to provide impartial evidence that could either help exonerate officers or convict them, depending on whether a shooting appears justified on film.

But a team of Kellogg researchers wondered just how impartial such evidence really is. Is all footage equal? Or might jurors perceive interactions filmed by a body cam versus a dash cam differently? And would these differences affect how much they blamed the officer?

“There’s all this pressure to get this technology, and yet no one stopped to ask, ‘What does this all mean?’” says Broderick Turner, a PhD student at Kellogg, who conducted research with Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at Kellogg, to get at that answer.

They found that people who watched a body cam version of an interaction—anything from the wearer bumping into someone to a police shooting—were less likely to believe that the person instigating that action did it on purpose, as compared to people who saw the same interaction filmed by a dash cam.

There was a “diminished sense of blame or responsibility for the person who’s wearing the body cam,” Roese says.

This is an important distinction, especially if charges are filed against an officer. Intentionality, Roese says, is “the difference between first-degree murder and manslaughter.”

The researchers recommend filming interactions from more than one point of view—for instance, from dash cams and body cams on multiple officers—so that jurors aren’t biased by seeing just one perspective.

“Whenever possible, I think more video is better,” Roese says. Installing body cams “is the beginning of a process of reaching greater accountability, but it’s not the end.”

Body Cam vs. Dash Cam Perspective

Turner’s interest in this research topic arose in part from witnessing the surge of surveillance in today’s society, from security cameras to bystander iPhone videos. And he has a personal investment in understanding how video footage affects our perceptions of police shootings.

“I’m a huge black dude. I’m 6’6” and 250 pounds on a good day,” he says. “I am personally concerned about police activities. I care about Black Lives Matter.”

Turner and Roese were surprised that they couldn’t find any research on whether viewers interpreted these body cam vs. dash cam perspectives differently. After all, a body cam presents a first-person perspective. Typically worn on the chest, it shows what the wearer is seeing. In contrast, a dash cam shows a third-person perspective.

People who saw the body cam footage said the officer was less intentional. And they thought the officer deserved less blame and a weaker punishment.

Consider an incident in which an officer breaks a car window. A body cam would show a close-up of the baton shattering the glass, but not much of the officer herself. A dash cam would show the officer striking the window.

To conduct their own research, Turner and Roese teamed up with Eugene Caruso, at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, and Mike Dilich, a Chicago-based engineer who works in forensic analysis and legal consulting.

Just an Accident?

To understand these different perspectives, the researchers staged a simple interaction: one man bumping into another man. They filmed the incident from both a body cam on the person who did the bumping and a dash cam-like perspective about 10 feet away.

They then recruited 105 online participants, and showed them one of the filmed versions. Participants rated whether they thought the first person bumped into the second person intentionally, on a scale of 1 to 7.

The dash cam group gave an average intentionality rating of 3.25, while the body cam group rated intentionality at 2.66. A similar experiment that showed videos of an interaction between two women (instead of men) yielded similar results.

The team also performed the same test with real police footage from three incidents: one of an officer breaking a car window and two of an officer shooting a suspect. (Participants were warned about the nature of the videos beforehand to limit their distress.) Again, people who saw the body cam footage said the officer was less intentional. And they thought the officer deserved less blame and a weaker punishment.

Through Another Person’s Eyes

What could be causing the difference? The team came up with two possible explanations.

Perhaps viewers take the perspective of the body cam wearer—putting themselves in their shoes, so to speak. Previous studies suggest that people don’t like to blame themselves for bad behavior. So viewers may thus be less likely to think the body cam wearer did something on purpose.

If this explanation was right, then explicitly encouraging participants to take the wearer’s perspective should also change their perceptions of intentionality. That is, it should make those who watch dash cam footage less likely to believe that an officer did something on purpose. And it should make those watching body cam footage rate the officer’s intentionality even lower.

But that’s not what the team found. When they asked some participants to “take the perspective of the police officer” it didn’t make much of a difference, suggesting that perspective-taking wasn’t the key factor driving people’s tendency to blame—or not blame—the officer.

To Indict or Not

That brought the team to the second hypothesis: Maybe viewers are influenced by the fact that aside from the occasional hand or foot entering the frame, the wearer is largely out of sight. Perhaps the lack of a visible person makes viewers less likely to blame them.

To test this, the researchers deliberately introduced more views of the body cam wearer. They created videos of people performing simple tasks such as knocking over a cup or kicking a trash can. In some body cam videos, the wearer wasn’t visible at all. In others, viewers could see the person’s arm or foot.

“Some people have an uncritical perception that if you bring in body cam footage, in and of itself, it’s going to make things better. ... That may not always be the case.”

— Neal Roese

When participants saw the videos that included glimpses of the wearer’s body, they rated intentionality about as high as those in the dash cam group. “Those judgments basically look exactly the same as those for the dash cam version,” Turner says.

Would this matter in court proceedings? To find out, the team obtained a real police report of an officer breaking a car window. The car’s driver had passed out and the car was stopped in the middle of the street. After being unable to wake the driver by tapping on the window, the officer broke the passenger side window. The surprised driver woke up and accelerated into a power pole, starting a fire.

In a lab experiment, the researchers asked 203 people to read the report. Some participants also viewed body cam or dash cam footage of the incident. Then they had to decide whether the officer should be indicted on several different charges.

Seventy-one percent of dash cam viewers recommended indicting for assault, 69 percent for battery, and 60 percent for aggravated battery. But among body cam viewers, those figures were only 49 percent, 53 percent, and 49 percent, respectively.

Surprisingly, people who read the report without watching any videos were about as likely to indict as the dash cam group. The researchers don’t know why, but they speculate that when people do watch a video, they tend to focus on that and pay less attention to the report.

“Video dominates written words,” Turner says. “It’s almost like the report exists less when there’s a body cam.”

A Path to Greater Police Accountability?

The team is still trying to better understand the differences in perception. For example, what happens if an incident is filmed from yet another perspective, such as a security camera?

What’s clear is that we should not assume that people interpret all video the same way.

“Some people have an uncritical perception that if you bring in body cam footage, in and of itself, it’s going to make things better,” Roese says. “The takeaway from this research is, wait a minute, that may not always be the case.”

Yet body cams are still useful, Turner emphasizes. If several officers at the same incident all wear cameras, that collection of footage provides a variety of perspectives. In essence, he says, “they each become each other’s dash cam.”

Featured Faculty

SC Johnson Chair in Global Marketing; Professor of Marketing; Professor of Psychology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences (Courtesy)

About the Writer
Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.
About the Research
Turner, Broderick L., Eugene M. Caruso, Mike A. Dilich, and Neal J. Roese. “Body camera footage leads to lower judgments of intent than dash camera footage.” PNAS 116(4): 1201-1206 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1805928116
Most Popular This Week
  1. Your Team Doesn’t Need You to Be the Hero
    Too many leaders instinctively try to fix a crisis themselves. A U.S. Army colonel explains how to curb this tendency in yourself and allow your teams to flourish.
    person with red cape trying to put out fire while firefighters stand by.
  2. What Triggers a Career Hot Streak?
    New research reveals a recipe for success.
    Collage of sculptor's work culminating in Artist of the Year recognition
  3. What’s the Secret to Successful Innovation?
    Hint: it’s not the product itself.
    standing woman speaking with man seated on stool
  4. Which Form of Government Is Best?
    Democracies may not outlast dictatorships, but they adapt better.
    Is democracy the best form of government?
  5. How Much Do Campaign Ads Matter?
    Tone is key, according to new research, which found that a change in TV ad strategy could have altered the results of the 2000 presidential election.
    Political advertisements on television next to polling place
  6. What Went Wrong with FTX—and What’s Next for Crypto?
    One key issue will be introducing regulation without strangling innovation, a fintech expert explains.
    stock trader surrounded by computer monitors
  7. How Are Black–White Biracial People Perceived in Terms of Race?
    Understanding the answer—and why black and white Americans may percieve biracial people differently—is increasingly important in a multiracial society.
    How are biracial people perceived in terms of race
  8. Immigrants to the U.S. Create More Jobs than They Take
    A new study finds that immigrants are far more likely to found companies—both large and small—than native-born Americans.
    Immigrant CEO welcomes new hires
  9. How Experts Make Complex Decisions
    By studying 200 million chess moves, researchers shed light on what gives players an advantage—and what trips them up.
    two people playing chess
  10. Yes, Consumers Care if Your Product Is Ethical
    New research shows that morality matters—but it’s in the eye of the beholder.
    woman chooses organic lettuce in grocery
  11. Why Well-Meaning NGOs Sometimes Do More Harm than Good
    Studies of aid groups in Ghana and Uganda show why it’s so important to coordinate with local governments and institutions.
    To succeed, foreign aid and health programs need buy-in and coordination with local partners.
  12. Product Q&A Forums Hold a Lot of Promise. Here’s How to Make Them Work.
    The key to these online communities, where users can ask and answer questions, is how many questions get useful answers.
    man sits at computer reading Q&A forum
  13. What Went Wrong at AIG?
    Unpacking the insurance giant's collapse during the 2008 financial crisis.
    What went wrong during the AIG financial crisis?
  14. When Do Open Borders Make Economic Sense?
    A new study provides a window into the logic behind various immigration policies.
    How immigration affects the economy depends on taxation and worker skills.
  15. What the New Climate Bill Means for the U.S.—and the World
    The Inflation Reduction Act won’t reverse inflation or halt climate change, but it's still a big deal.
    energy bill with solar panels wind turbines and pipelines
  16. Post-War Reconstruction Is a Good Investment
    Ukraine’s European neighbors will need to make a major financial commitment to help rebuild its economy after the war. Fortunately, as the legacy of the post–World War II Marshall Plan shows, investing in Ukraine's future will also serve Europe's own long-term interests.
    two people look out over a city
  17. How Has Marketing Changed over the Past Half-Century?
    Phil Kotler’s groundbreaking textbook came out 55 years ago. Sixteen editions later, he and coauthor Alexander Chernev discuss how big data, social media, and purpose-driven branding are moving the field forward.
    people in 1967 and 2022 react to advertising
  18. The Political Divide in America Goes Beyond Polarization and Tribalism
    These days, political identity functions a lot like religious identity.
    people engage in conflict with swords
More in Policy