Body-worn cameras can’t replace an officer’s perceptions, but they can be extraordinarily valuable when they confirm the presence of weapons, capture resistance, and verify de-escalation attempts. What’s more, it is expected that the presence of cameras encourages people on both sides of the lens to be the best version of themselves as they interact.
But beyond the external restraint that a body cam might place on behavior, video has long been thought as an important tool for enhancing an officer’s memory. The expected result is more complete and accurate memories for report writing, interview preparation, and courtroom testimony.
Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute, has been studying the impact of video on policing for nearly two decades and notes that how and when to use body-cam video continues to be one of the most frequent inquiries received by Force Science.
Dr. Lewinski had this to say: “We often receive questions about when to show officers their videos, which we recognize has become a political issue in some areas. But our interest in the effects of video on policing is focused on identifying the differences between digital “memory” and human memory. We often find ourselves explaining the physical and technological limitations of video evidence, but there are other aspects of video evidence that concern us. Such as, how does viewing videos of critical incidents affect the emotional response of the officers involved, and what does the empirical evidence say about the impact of viewing videos on an officer’s memory? This second question was recently addressed by researchers from Carleton University and their findings were highly relevant to this important discussion.”
The research referenced by Dr. Lewinski is the 2019 study by Brittany Blaskovits and Craig Bennell of Carleton University, Ontario, Canada. In their study, Blaskovits and Bennell conducted a comprehensive review of academic literature to assess how body-worn cameras (BWCs) can influence an officer’s memory.
In Exploring the Potential Impact of Body Worn Cameras on Memory in Officer-Involved Critical Incidents: a Literature Review, the authors noted:
“Much of the available research supports the commonly held view that BWCs could be used to enhance memory for these interactions, particularly interactions that are complex or stressful. However, contrary to expectations, research also exists that suggests BWCs may actually have a detrimental effect on officer memory.”
In their literature review, researchers verified that static and dynamic visual imagery can enhance memory. Multiple studies confirmed that these visual cues go beyond just pictures and video and may involve props, models, and even mental visualization practices like those found in cognitive interviewing.
When considering the findings of the Carleton researchers, Dr. Lewinksi observed that the benefits of visual cues are also noted in scene walkthroughs. According to Dr. Lewinski: “The benefits of scene walkthroughs may be amplified when officers are able to direct their attention to those areas to which they were attending at the time of the event. In addition to the visual cues, the smells and sounds may further benefit the recall process.”
The Carleton researchers drew an interesting parallel to the enhanced recall between police body-worn cameras and those used by civilians for “lifelogging.”
Lifelogging involves the use of BWC type technology to automatically record daily events through a series of photographs. When these photographs were shown to amnesic patients, certain patients were able to “describe thoughts, feelings, and happenings associated with the images, but not depicted in the images.” In these clinical trials, “specific patients revealed that even when the images had not been reviewed for months at a time, the events associated with them could still be recalled.”
In Exploring the Potential Impact of Body Worn Cameras, the researchers identified various theories as to why visual cues enhance memory recall and noted that BWCs that include video and audio have “helped individuals recall additional facts about a recorded incident.” Police specific research is limited, but the authors noted that based on the research they were able to review, observation of the BWC video was shown to enhance the officers’ memories of the relevant events.
Potential Negative Consequences
Although the researchers found numerous studies that suggest BWCs have important benefits for the police and the communities they serve, the use of BWCs must still be approached carefully.
In 2014, the Force Science Institute detailed some of the operational and technological limitations of BWCs in 10 Limitations of Body Cams You Need to Know for Your Protection (2014). The Carleton University researchers cited the Force Science research and then advanced the discussion by identifying potential cognitive consequences that should be considered before relying on BWCs: Misinformation, Retrieval-Induced Forgetting, and Cognitive Offloading.
Misinformation results when details that were not perceived during the original event are later unintentionally incorporated into an officer’s memory. This new information may be false or accurate, but in either case, the officer was not aware of it during the event.
Those familiar with the limitations of video evidence will remember that original video often contains information that does not accurately reflect the reality of the event.
These errors can include sounds that are not synchronized with the video, muzzle flashes that are not captured, speed distortions, distance distortions, and even missing or added objects.
Officers who view a video may unintentionally incorporate these false details into their memory, which can later be used to challenge their credibility if the video errors or distortions are identified and “corrected” by video examiners.
Another type of misinformation error can result when people view videos that depict accurate details, but those details were not actually perceived during the event. If this information is unintentionally incorporated into the person’s memory, they may believe that they perceived the detail.
Researchers have suggested that people are more vulnerable to misinformation when their memory of the event was weak. Police officers may be especially susceptible to misinformation errors following rapidly unfolding, complex, and stress-inducing events.
The Carleton University researchers identified another memory-related concern associated with BWCs—retrieval-induced forgetting.
“Retrieval-induced forgetting” results when “the act of remembering part of an event prompts other aspects of the event to be forgotten.” This means if an officer views a video of the incident that they were involved in, they risk forgetting those details that they actually witnessed or experienced but were not captured on the video.
Researchers theorize that retrieval-induced forgetting could result in officers being less able to recall their internal perceptions and impressions, as these aspects of experiences are not captured on video. In use of force cases, this can be especially problematic.
The final psychological impact that BWCs may have on officers is described as “cognitive offloading.” With cognitive offloading, people attempt to conserve their mental resources by limiting the stimulus that they attend to.
One type of offloading identified by the researchers is known as “offloading into the world” or “intention offloading.” Intention offloading is what people do when they set alarm clocks or use lists to enhance future memory. Once they are certain the information has been documented (externally retained), they are free to use their cognitive space for other activities.
Offloading memory requirements to the BWC can be especially important and tempting for officers. This offloading frees officers to use their attention on cognitive processes like communication, de-escalation, problem-solving, and decision-making. It also provides the needed mental resources to engage in motor tasks like unholstering, aiming, moving to cover, or deploying intermediate use of force options.
The Carleton researchers identified what they described as clear implications for the police profession. Because of the high-stress, high-consequence experiences often associated with policing, officers may be particularly prone to offloading. According to the researchers: “This could prove especially problematic when BWC footage ends up being unavailable after the event, either because the camera was not recording due to human error or technological issues, the footage is of low quality, or the officer is not allowed to view the video.”
More Research Recommended
Additional police specific research and training should be the next step in identifying and validating the positive outcomes associated with BWCs, as well as the operational and psychological challenges posed by their use.
As communities and courts continue to wrestle with the proper role of BWCs in law enforcement, these research projects will continue to play important roles in the conversations.
Readers are encouraged to watch for the upcoming release of Force Science’s new two-day video course. This course has been specifically designed for investigators and administrators needing to understand the benefits and challenges of working with video evidence in use of force cases.