We’ve only begun to see the reality of police work thanks to body cameras.
In March of 1989 the world was given an inside view of the profession that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of for the last 23 years when the television show COPS premiered on the FOX network. That was as close to the reality that thousands of others and I experienced in the ensuing decades than anyone has come to sharing.
Body cameras will do even more.
Just as body cameras are a disruptive technology, the ripples of the reality that officers face will be disruptive to American society. We’ve already seen a glimpse of those ripples in the revelation of the Jason Harrison shooting that occurred on June 14, 2014 – the body camera video being released only a few weeks ago.
Many citizens are highly critical and raise doubt about the dangers of a man with a screwdriver. Many officers however, view the video convinced of the dangers that a screwdriver can pose. Mere days after the Harrison shooting a teenager was attacked and stabbed (nearly to death) in Dallas with a screwdriver.
The point of this post is not to justify the actions of the officers. The purpose is to illustrate the divide in perceptions of threats and reasonableness of actions that appears to exist between many police and the general public, and how body cameras will continue to reveal that divide.
Body cameras will show the ugly realities that officers face. The cameras will fail to answer all of the questions or provide all of the information necessary to form a complete, educated opinion of any situation. Additionally they will provide an opportunity to replay incidents like the Harrison shooting in frame-by-frame detail, giving opportunities to you and me that were never afforded the officers in the field. The ability to do so is neither fair nor unfair to the officers, it just is the reality of the technology and world in which we live. What we do with that ability is critical.
Furthermore, body cameras will continue to provide access to the confusion that comes in the midst of the most stressful situations an officer will likely ever be involved in. There will be seemingly irrational questions by officers about whether or not they should handcuff a dying man, or the yelling for the man to drop a screwdriver after he’s been shot. To police officers, those commands are natural and make sense because officers are trained to give those orders. They are not sitting at a screen watching the video, they are living with the adrenaline coursing through their system and working to control their very natural fight or flight responses.
We will see more videos where officers initial statements do not match exactly what the video shows. In these highly stressful situations we can expect that because of the way the brain processes information – in part, we don’t know exactly on what the individual officers were focusing their attention when the incident occurred. We already know that witnesses recall things differently and police are humans as well. That will not stop attorneys from capitalizing when there are differences in officers’ recollections. That will also not stop some critics from accusing officers of lying when it occurs. That too is the reality and part of the disruption.
Get ready, because we will see videos of horrific accident scenes where officers arrive and swear a person was just talking to them when the video will reveal they were clearly not and were likely already close to death. We will see the limits of individuals’ cognitive abilities when exposed to extreme stress. The hope of the officers lies in the psychologists and medical experts to explain discrepancies in what officers had the availability of seeing and what they actually recall seeing. So far most of the discussion has been by attorneys, unions, journalists and activists.
Transparency and open objective discussion along side research and clinical study on cognition under stress will be imperative to our understanding what happens during these critical incidents. We will be witness to other scenes that, in fairness to all, will require more explanation and critical thought. The videos will speak for themselves but be assured that what they say will in all likelihood not be the final word.
Major Max Geron works for the Dallas Police Department. He is a security studies scholar who received his master’s degree in Homeland Security from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School. The opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dallas Police Department or the City of Dallas.