│Caren Myers Morrison is an Associate Professor at the Georgia State University College of Law, where she teaches Evidence, Criminal Procedure, and Law & Literature. She served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Eastern District of New York from 2001 to 2006, where she prosecuted international narcotics traffickers and organized crime groups. Her current research focuses on the impact of new technologies on police surveillance.
Professor Morrison graduated from Columbia Law School, and clerked for judges on the United States District Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. From 2006 to 2009, she was Acting Assistant Professor at New York University School of Law. Before law school, Professor Morrison trained as a journalist at London’s City University and worked as freelance journalist in London for seven years.
Professor Morrison’s current work in progress, Police Body Cameras and the Illusion of Truth, explores the ambiguities inherent in video evidence captured during police-civilian encounters. Her previous articles have been published in the Vanderbilt Law Review, Hastings Law Journal, Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, California Law Review Circuit, and Columbia Law Review Sidebar.
Police Body Cameras and the Illusion of Truth
Following months of high-profile incidents of police violence, public support in the United States for police-worn body cameras is at an all-time high. Police departments across the country are rolling out body camera programs to record all police-civilian encounters, and the federal government has pledged millions of dollars to help them do it. The problem is that neither the courts nor the public are particularly sophisticated when it comes to reading visual images.
American courts attempting to interpret police video evidence have proved to be exceptionally naïve about the ways that meaning is produced textually and semiotically in police recordings. To the contrary, courts have treated video evidence as somehow more objective than other evidence, confident that such a video “speaks for itself.” But of course, what a video says depends on who is watching it.
There is a whole set of cultural and narrative baggage that any viewer brings to video evidence, particularly in racially heightened scenarios evolving from policing and crime. Implicit bias is a pervasive problem, but so is the perspective bias that is an inescapable part of recording events from a police actor’s point of view. Body camera video puts the viewer in the police officer’s shoes, identifying the viewer more closely with law enforcement and more likely perceiving suspects to be threatening.
This kind of manipulation through perspective is well understood in the cinema, explored in such films as Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964), as well as in first-person shooter video games. But it is still uncharted territory for legal actors. Educating police, the public and the courts in reading body camera video and understanding its ambiguities should be a critical part of any project of reform.