Lend me your ears: Relationship between the presence of audio track and perception of police brutality in arrest videos
Perceived level of forced used by police is influenced by presence or absence of the audio feed in arrest videos. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.
Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2019, Vol. 25, No. 4, 315–322
Higinio Guillermo Reyes Jr., Texas A&M International University
Kate Alexandra Houston, Texas A&M International University
This research investigated whether the perceived level of force (categorized as justifiable force, moderate force, or excessive force) used by a law enforcement officer in effecting an arrest or detention changes depending on whether the audio track was present or removed from the arrest video. Participants were each shown 5 arrest videos with either the audio feed intact or removed. Participants were asked to indicate whether they felt the use of force depicted in the video was justified, moderate, or excessive. There was a significant association between audio presence or absence for 3 of 5 use of force videos. For 2 of 3 arrest videos with significant associations, participants perceived the violence as less severe when the audio track was removed. For the remaining video, removal of the audio track increased the percentage of participants who found the use of force to be excessive. The current data suggest that by removing the audio feed from arrest videos, the justifiability of use of force incidents can be manipulated. These data are an indication of the malleability of perceptions and judgments, and they serve to motivate future research in this area as we seek to understand, and thus tackle, the issue of police use of force incidents.
police brutality, police use of force, perceptions of use of force
Summary of the Research
“Tension among citizens and law enforcement officers continues to be unpredictable, as does the prosecution of such incidents. […] There is a difficult balance to maintain—on one hand, the rigorous implementation of police department policies in an attempt to regulate the use of force needs to be maintained, while on the other hand, law enforcement officers are continuously placed in peculiar and dangerous situations in which crucial decisions need to be quickly made.” (p. 315)
“The academic literature, or scientific study, of [excessive use of force by police] is relatively new and thus relatively sparse. For example, Terrill and Reisig (2003) found that police are more likely to use higher levels of force when called into neighborhoods that are known for high crime rates and previous encounters with resistant suspects. […] In a further study of this area, Terrill et al. (2008) found that police use of force can be predicted by the level of resistance the suspect displays when an officer is effecting an arrest.” (pp. 315–316)
“Others have investigated the mental health of the suspect that police are interacting with as a possible reason for heightened use of force. For example, Baldwin et al. (2018) argued that a suspect with excited delirium syndrome(often abbreviated to ExDS) is considered high risk to the arresting officers, which could explain a heightened use of force. […] Baldwin et al. (2018) argued that one possible explanation for police officers’ excessive use of force while arresting suspects could be that police encounter persons affected by ExDS and thus are forced toward the highest spectrum of the use of force continuum (a continuum that ranges from verbal commands at the lower end to lethal force at the higher end) in order to subdue the suspect.” (p. 316)
“Other research has sought to understand police use of excessive force from the police officer/police department perspective, rather than the suspect perspective. […] Cadets in the ego-depletion condition indicated that they would use force earlier than those in the control condition, thus suggesting that circumstances that produce ego depletion of the officer in the field may lead to excessive or inappropriate use of force in an attempt to control the situation. […] From an organizational perspective, it has also been found that agencies that require supervisors or other higher-level personnel to fill out use of force incident forms report lower levels of use of force incidents than police departments that require the arresting officer to fill out the paperwork. (p. 316)
“Finally, it has also been reported that in-service training in police departments directly affects use of force incidents but possibly not in the anticipated direction: As length of annual in-service training at the department level increased, so too did the number of use of force incidents for that department. It is unclear what led to the increase, but one potential is that with more training, officers become more aware of the requirement to report use of force incidents, rather than the training itself leading to an increase in use of force by police when arresting members of the general public.” (p. 316)
“An overall consequence of excessive use of force when effecting an arrest has been a decrease in public perceptions of police legitimacy, which in turn can lead to decreases in law-abiding behavior.” (p. 316)
“Despite the growing research attempting to understand the mechanisms under which police use of force may occur and upon which attitudes toward police use of force may change, little if anything is understood about how members of the public judge police use of force incidents. Questions remain such as whether members of the public can consistently judge whether a forceful arrest uses excessive force or justifiable force. Further, are there any factors that are police controlled that may alter those perceptions? These questions take on increased importance when one considers the role of the jury in finding a police officer guilty or innocent of using excessive force to effect an arrest.” (p. 316)
“Increasingly, police officers are wearing body cameras and/or have cameras in their cars (so-called dash cameras) to record arrests. What is curious, however, is that often times the videos from police dash cameras or body worn cameras are silent—they have no audio feed. The Washington Post conducted an investigation into this phenomenon and found that 80% of police dash cameras in the United States are missing audio feeds. Furthermore, federal policy does not mandate audio recording by police of any interactions they have with the general public.” (p. 316)
“As violence and threats can be verbal as well as physical, an audio feed may be important evidence in the determination of a jury for how they should rule on such incidents. Audio adds additional context, and events that include audio with the visual imagery have been shown to benefit from improved memory as well as an increase in the decision-making ability of the perceiver.” (pp. 316–317)
“Therefore, this begs the question of whether a lack of audio feeds on use of force videos used in court could alter the perceptions of the jury members regarding how excessive the force used was. Could the unavailability of the audio track result in the general public making less informed decisions regarding the justifiability of the force used in an arrest? Conversely, could the presence of an audio track lead the general public to better discriminate whether the level of force utilized was excessive or justified? The current research aims to answer these questions. As arrest videos may be silent (without audio), developing an understanding of how an audio track may influence judgments and decision making in these contexts is not only timely but also potentially of great import.” (p. 317)
The sample included 102 participant who identified as female, 22 who identified as male, and 1 did not identify with the proposed genders. Participants were undergraduate students in a reginal university on southern Texas, most participants identified as Hispanic (90.4%) and ranged from 18 to 45 years of age.
“Given the duration of the arrest videos required that participants spend a minimum of 15 min to complete the experiment (10 min to view all of the videos and an estimated 5 min to answer the questions). […] All five arrest videos were located through the online video service YouTube and are publicly available on YouTube. […] Videos were edited only to remove the audio for the no-audio condition. […] [We] measured force using the categories of justifiable, moderate, or excessive.” (pp. 317–318)
“A four-member panel of law enforcement professionals was convened to view the five selected arrest videos and give a rating on the use of force depicted in the stimuli videos prior to data collection. […] The panel comprised two male members with combined law enforcement experience totaling over 60 years of active service ranging from patrol division, narcotics, and administrative positions, as well as academic teaching experience. The remaining members of the panel were two female law enforcement officers who had experience ranging from within the correctional system, juvenile probations, and academic teaching experience. The four-member panel categorized the arrest videos in three dimensions of level of use of force: justifiable, moderate, or excessive.” (p. 318)
“For the videos where the removal of the audio feed had a significant effect on ratings, the effect tended to be that the presence of an audio feed resulted in the violence depicted being perceived with increased severity. By comparison, the removal of the audio feed reduced the severity of the ratings of the use of force by the arresting officer.” (p. 320)
“The data indicated that there was a significant association between when audio was present or absent for three out of the five videos presented to the participants. For two of the three arrest videos with significant associations, the removal of audio track resulted in participants perceiving the violence as less severe than when the audio was intact. Interestingly, for the remaining video, the removal of the audio track worked in the opposite direction: Removal of the audio track increased the percentage of participants who found the use of force to be excessive. It is unclear why the removal of the audio had differential effects for these videos.” (p. 320)
“One of the aims of this research was to highlight whether removing the audio feed from videos of law enforcement officers effecting an arrest influences the viewers’ perceptions regarding the level of force utilized. These data suggest that, at the very least, removal and/or presence of an audio track within an arrest or detention video can influence the perceived justifiability of the violence depicted. The malleability of the use of force rating by removal of the audio track may have implications for the social media broadcast of such videos, which have historically been shown to lead to riots, or in the viewing of videos within a prosecution context.” (p. 320)
Translating Research into Practice
“The main implication of this research is with regards to the muting of audio in an arrest video whereupon that video becomes evidence, such as in a police brutality case. These findings suggest that the removal of the audio feed can influence the perceptions of the videos, and when it does, the removal of the audio feed is more likely to result in the viewer rating the violence as less severe than when the same video is viewed with an intact audio feed. However, in one case, the violence was rated as more severe when the audio feed was removed. Either way, the absence of the audio feed had a demonstrable effect on the perceived level of severity of the force used and therefore is worthy of consideration.” (p. 320)
“One potential implication of this research is with regards to the majority of police video-recording devices not having the functionality of an audio feed, which results in a silent video (i.e., with no audio context to the event depicted) being played in court. Such behavior could influence the perception of the jury or judge regarding the justifiability of the violence used by the police officer. The simple act of muting the audio feed might alter the audience’s perception of the severity of the violence. These implications could be addressed by establishing policies requiring law enforcement agencies that are equipped with video cameras or body cameras to require all video recordings to also contain an audio track.” (p. 320)
Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians
“The current data suggest that by removing a key contextual aspect, the audio feed, the justifiability of use of force incidents can be manipulated. However, we do not fully understand what it is about the audio feed per se that causes the perceptions of the severity of the use of the force to change. In all arrest videos utilized in this research, explicit language was used by both arresting officers and those they sought to arrest; therefore, one future research question could be how the audibility of explicit language alters the perceptions of the acceptability of the use of force in these encounters.” (p. 321)
“A further area of future research could also be to investigate whether the race of the arresting officers and the suspect plays a role in perceptions of use of force and whether such effects may be mediated by the inclusion of the audio feed. These findings have implications for the audio-recording policies of police forces. At the very least, these data are an indication of the malleability of perceptions and judgments and serve to motivate future research in this area as we seek to understand, and thus tackle, the issue of police use of force.” (p. 321)
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Authored by Kseniya Katsman
Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.