Why People Trust Their Lying Eyes: Implicit Bias and the Limitations of Video Footage in Tackling Police Brutality

by Lucy Odigie-Turley, PhD, The Opportunity Agenda

Out of focus and unsteady best describe the 14-minute body-cam footage that captured the last few moments of 6-year old Jeremy Mardis’ life. Jeremy was just one of the 991 individuals shot dead by police in 2015[1], and one of the growing number of victims who death was captured on video.

On Nov. 3, 2015, Jeremy’s father, Christopher Few, was involved in a two-mile car chase with Marksville, Louisiana officers Derrick Stafford and Norris Greenhouse Jr. The pursuit ended with Stafford and Greenhouse Jr. discharging 18 rounds into Few’s vehicle – severely injuring Few in the process, and killing Jeremy. In March, 2017, former deputy Derrick Stafford was convicted of manslaughter and attempted murder. The body cam footage, which shows Christopher Few with his hands raised before Stafford and Greenhouse open fire, played a key role in securing a conviction.

The conviction of Stafford is unfortunately, an exception to the rule. Since 2005, only 13 officers have been convicted of murder or manslaughter in fatal on-duty shootings[2]. The fact that Christopher Few and his son Jeremy are white, and Stafford Greenhouse black cannot be overlooked as a contributing factor in the outcome  of this case.

In recent years, body camera and phone camera footage have undoubtedly shifted public discussion of police brutality, as stories of excessive police force that were all too often dismissed as falsehood have become increasingly difficult to ignore. Yet, time and time again, despite the presence of shocking footage, police officers charged with the killing of Black Americans have been acquitted. The acquittal last month of Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez for the killing of Philando Castile, is just the latest in a growing list of Black Americans slain on camera, but left without justice.

Yet, time and time again, despite the presence of shocking footage, police officers charged with the killing of Black Americans have been acquitted.

In the hours following the news of Yanez’s acquittal, people took to social media to express their anger and frustration, but also support of Yanez and approval of the verdict. Supporters of Yanez questioned the legitimacy of the video footage, with many arguing that the video began after the shooting occurred, while others draw on negative stereotypes about the innate criminality of Black Americans as justification. This immediate need to create an alternative narrative around video footage is far from uncommon. Similar attempts to diminish the importance of video footage took place around the killings of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and the arrest and subsequent suspicious death of Sandra Bland. But as the case of Walter Scott, a black man shot on April 4, 2015 in South Carolina following a traffic stop, has shown us, even when video footage captures clear cut displays of police corruption, juries still struggle to convict police officers in the killing of Black Americans.

So, why is this the case? Why do so many Americans choose to trust their lying eyes and what does this mean for the effectiveness of dash-cam videos in holding police accountable?

The cases of Castile, Scott,Garner, and many others demonstrate that in the face of implicit (and at times explicit) racial bias, many Americans are willing to see what fits their established views about Black Americans. Research from Pew Research Center exploring public perceptions of the police shows that the majority of white Americans hold wholly differing views about police performance, use of force, and accountability than Black Americans[3]. Seventy percent of white Americans say that the police in their community are doing an excellent or good job when it comes to holding officers accountable when misconduct occurs, compared to just 31 percent of Black Americans. When asked about the root causes of recent protests, and disparities in police use force between racial/ethnic groups, white Americans cite “anti-police bias” as a central cause.

These biases are reemerging in the juries overseeing cases of police killings  Despite the 1968 Supreme Court ruling, Batson v. Kentucky, which prohibits the striking of jurors based on their ethnicity, juries still tend to skew disproportionality white. In the recent trial of Walter Scott’s killer, Michael Slager, who was caught on camera shooting Scott as he ran away, a jury of six white men, five white women, and one black man were unable to agree on a verdict.

While the majority of Americans (93%) currently favor the use of body cameras by police so officers can record their interactions with citizens[4], in order for body-cam and other video footage to live up to its promise, anti-black bias and implicit bias must be tackled head-on in our court system. We suggest a range of policy-solutions, including the continued use of video recording, the adoption of national guidelines for the use of force, and required screening for implicit bias and aggression for both current and prospective police officers. Alongside these strategies, it is essential to continue educating members of the public about the pervasiveness of implicit bias, and the critical need for fairer jury selection procedures in cases of police misconduct.

[1] The Washington Post, National Police Shooting Database, 2015. Retrieved July 1, 2017.

[2] Nick Ferner & Nick Wang, Huffington Post, Heres How Many Cops Got Convicted Of Murder Last Year For On-Duty Shootings, January, 2016. Retrieved July 1, 2017.

[3] Rich Morin & Renee Stepler, Pew Research Center, “The Racial Confidence Gap in Police Performance, September, 2016Retrieved July 6, 2017.

[4] Rich Morin & Renee Stepler, Pew Research Center, “The Racial Confidence Gap in Police Performance, September, 2016Retrieved July 6, 2017.

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