The impact of stress on memory can cause an officer’s recollection of a force encounter to include unintentional and sometimes major errors, but reviewing body camera recordings as a part of report writing may make the permanent record more accurate and complete, according to a new, first-of-its-kind human performance study.
The researchers involved claim their findings can “help front-line LEOs understand their own memory and report-writing limitations” and may also help reduce liability risks for law enforcement agencies. But “at the same time,” the study results spotlight critical “issues that need to be addressed in training and policy.”
Four of the six-man study team are emergency medicine physicians or professors with ties to TASER International, Inc., manufacturer of the body-worn camera (BWC) used in the experiments, and another team member is a TASER attorney. However, they objectively identify competing products in their report and state frankly that “the results of our study apply to any BWC.”
Lead author is Dr. Donald Dawes, a board-certified emergency physician, reserve police officer, and tactical “SWAT-doc” in southern California. Two other of the researchers are also sworn LEOs as well as legal or medical professionals. Their full report, “Body-Worn Cameras Improve Law Enforcement Officer Report Writing Accuracy,” is published this month in the peer-reviewed Journal of Law Enforcement and can be downloaded without charge by clicking here.
COPS & CAMERAS ON-SCENE
Subjects in the study were 11 sworn officers from five agencies in the Phoenix (AZ) area. They ranged in age from 28 to 43, with an average of 12 years on the job, mostly on patrol. None had used a BWC before.
Along with a duty belt equipped with the usual array of (neutralized) gear, ranging from OC to TASER X26 CEW to pistol, each officer was fitted with a TASER AXON BWC, attached by magnet to a pair of special eyeglasses. The camera was positioned on the gun side, “generally in line with the officer’s field of vision.”
One at a time, with BCW recording, each participant then was “dispatched” to a fast-paced series of three back-to-back role-play scenarios–a domestic disturbance, a vehicle stop, and a theft complaint–and instructed to interact as if in a real-world encounter. If force was required, the live “suspect” would step aside and the officer would deliver whatever force was used to a training dummy.
The scenarios incorporated a variety of elements designed to raise the participants’ stress level. These included verbal harangues, thrown beer cans, loud music, delayed compliance, physical resistance, deliberate distractions, and the visible presence of real and potentially improvised weapons.
Unknown to the officers while these encounters were in progress, the second and third scenarios were “decoys,” staged merely to “create time, stress, and distraction” prior to the officers being instructed to write a detailed report on the first incident. Different officers took slightly different times to complete the exercises, but generally from 15 to 20 minutes passed after completion of the domestic disturbance encounter until the beginning of report writing.
FROM MEMORY TO WORDS
After completing all three scenarios, each officer sat at a computer and filled out a use-of-force reporting form and an arrest report regarding the first encounter, the latter being a “free text narrative” of what took place.
That done, the officer was allowed to review his BWC recording and to “make any changes to the original documents that may be needed,” Dawes explains. No time limit was imposed either on writing the narrative or on reviewing the recording and amending the reports. Officers were allowed to replay their recordings as desired and to break down the action frame by frame.
Each change was considered an error correction. “Errors were categorized as minor, moderate, or major as related to their importance in the scenario,” Dawes writes, “related to such things as safety (i.e., LEO and involved parties), [to] recognizing criminal activity, or to the policy and constitutional justification for use of force.
“For example, inaccurate subject description or inaccurate sequencing of non-force events…were considered minor errors, whereas inaccurate sequencing of use of force, which could have a bearing on the policy or constitutional basis for the use of force, was considered a moderate error. Omitting a use of force, for example, was considered a more egregious error and likely to have significant legal proceeding consequences, and was considered a major error.”
All participants except two found and corrected minor errors in their narrative report after reviewing their BWC recording. Most commonly (six instances for one officer) these involved correcting what was said by some party during the encounter, followed in frequency by fixing inaccurate scene descriptions. In all, 29 minor errors were caught and corrected.
Moderate errors were scattered across more than half a dozen fields, most often involving adding quotations, missing statements, “miscounting uses of force,” and “omitting important subject behaviors.” Fourteen moderate errors were corrected by one officer alone; 59 were corrected overall. Two officers made no corrections in this category.
Five officers changed a total of 10 major errors. Most often these involved “not giving warnings” or “omitting uses of force,” but also included “missing significant statements” and “omitting dangerous subject behaviors.”
Only one officer out of the 11 tested made no corrections in any category.
Interestingly, however, this officer even after reviewing the BWC recording missederrors that should have been corrected, as did all the other participants. Overwhelmingly, these “errors that persisted” were in the “moderate” category. They included “omitting important subject behaviors,” “missing possible weapons other than a gun,” and missing a quiet third person who had been in the room where the domestic disturbance took place.
Significantly, among the smattering of major errors one that remained uncorrected by all officers included missing a gun that was in plain sight on an ottoman near the male and female combatants. “Two LEOs did not report uses of force clearly seen on their BWC recordings,” the researchers note. “Between these two LEOs, there were nine individual uses of force not reported.”
In all, the researchers tallied 21 errors “related to miscounting, mis-sequencing, or omitting force, warnings, compliance, or other important descriptors of the use of force.” Many of these, the study concludes, “could have led to, at a minimum, challenges to the officer’s credibility, successful pursuit of an excessive force complaint, or dismissal of charges” against an arrestee.
Moreover, Dawes writes, “the results were obtained in rested study subjects, under modest stress, with modest distractions. It is believed the true incidence of errors in a real-world population would…likely…be higher.”
UNCERTAINTIES OF MEMORY
In the public mind, discrepancy between an officer’s report and what’s captured by a camera is likely to raise suspicion of deceit. But the reality of how memories are encoded in the brain and later recalled should caution against making conclusive judgments based on inconsistencies alone.
Unlike the broad-seeing, permanently retentive camera, human memory is highly vulnerable to inaccuracy, the study points out; the memory process “is not infallible and therefore should not be treated as such.” Stress, fatigue, exertion–all are well established in scientific literature to impair memory, and all are common factors in law enforcement. Such esoteric phenomena as “schematic memory errors” and “catecholamine effects” are explained by Dawes’ team as potential causes of memory inaccuracies far beyond the control or even conscious awareness of affected officers.
Given these erosive influences, it is hardly surprising that mistakes cropped up in the participants’ reports. Nor, for that matter, is it surprising that errors and omissions persisted even after the BWC footage was reviewed.
“Despite the weight recordings may be given” in the judicial and public arenas, they “do not necessarily reflect” with certainty what the involved officer “saw, heard, or perceived” at any given point in time, Dawes writes. “In this study, there were many errors where the LEO did not see certain scene details, hear certain statements, or see certain subject actions that were ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ clearly” on the BWC.
In some instances, he explains, the officer may have been intently and narrowly focused on a given element of the scene, resulting in “inattention blindness” to other components. Or the officer’s brain may have subconsciously ignored some incoming data as it temporarily prioritized itself to concentrate on potentially life-threatening input. Or, even though the camera was mounted at eye level, it may have had “a slightly different field of ‘view’ than the LEO.” Dawes stresses: “This is quite different from a recording review frame-by-frame, with the ability to pause and rewind.”
These technological and physiological realities need to be considered in evaluating an officer’s use and report of force, the researchers note, because the standard set by Graham v. Connor requires that the “reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”
As part of the study, the participating officers ranked how accurate they perceived their reports to be on a five-point scale.
“Eight of the 11 LEOs (73%) ranked confidence in their initial report at a 3 (‘there may be some minor details that are inaccurate but it is mostly all accurate’),” Dawes writes. After viewing their BWC recording and correcting errors, 82% “ranked their second report a 4 (‘I feel very confident in the detail of the report’),” a significant positive shift.
“All the LEOs reported that the recording improved their report-writing ability,” Dawes states, and 10 of the 11 favored viewing BWC footage concurrently with report writing.
However, some of the officers “commented that they would be concerned about having to reconcile their observations with the recordings if they did not match.” That, then, becomes an important training challenge.
“LEOs would have to be taught to plainly explain inconsistencies they could not reconcile,” the study advises. “[I]t would be important for the LEO to explain” that the camera “does not necessarily show” what the officer “saw, heard, or perceived,” since the officer’s perception “is the constitutional standard.”
Another training challenge centers on the fact that “memory can degrade and change…as new information is introduced.” Addressing this “misinformation effect” is important because of the risk that viewing a recording with the intent of enhancingmemory might actually result in changing memory if the officer incorporates what he sees on the camera as what he “remembers” on his own.
One officer felt that recordings should be reviewed only after an initial report is written, “which would ostensibly reduce” the misinformation effect. “The optimal strategy,” the researchers concede, “may require additional study.”
As to another expressed concern–that “recording review might make report writing take longer”–the researchers argue that with some procedural adjustments viewing BWC footage “may actually lessen the time required by lessening the need for longer written narratives.”
For example, an officer “could simply annotate the recording with narrative that was important and not easily shown…or annotate what he actually saw, heard, or perceived if it was different than what was seen on the recording. In addition, policy could be written such that minor incidents could stand with only the recording with no narrative necessary (e.g., traffic violations)…. [A] small pilot study with limited data from the United Kingdom [found] a time savings of approximately 20 minutes per officer per 9-hour shift with the use of BWC recordings.”
Dawes’ team expresses the hope that their small study will serve as a “springboard” for other investigators to sample larger fields, including some that test officers under real-world conditions.
It seems clear that the topic of cameras and report writing is not going to evaporate anytime soon. “With the pervasive nature of cameras in our society, LEOs are likely going to have to reconcile their reports with other videos at some point in judicial proceedings if there is a complaint or incident review,” Dawes writes. In the opinion of his team, “it would be better for [officers] to have the opportunity to address any inconsistencies in [their] original report rather than years later in a federal civil-rights trial when memory is even more likely to be rife with errors.”
Dr. Dawes’ colleagues in this study were Drs. William Heegaard, Glenn Paetow, Benjamin Weston, and Jeffrey Ho, and Atty. Michael Brave.