Even when there's no script, cameras play tricks with us, telling a story that brings us along. And because we think "it's just a camera, it doesn't lie," we're convinced that what we're seeing is a whole and unambiguous story. This is even more so with the increased call for body cameras to be worn by law enforcement.
But what you see isn't always what you get.
Let's look at an example. This one's been making the news lately.
Video opens from the backseat, after a stop, and after backup has been called (you can see the second police vehicle in front during a pan. pretty standard boxing-in technique in a non-highway area like this). The windows are rolled maybe a third of the way down, just low enough to speak with the officer and pass over ID and such. A woman (the driver) loudly mentions one of the cops drawing a weapon.
So now we have three events that happened before the camera turned on: Pulling over, a cop drew a weapon, and backup was called.
Why would the cop draw a weapon? Based on the fact that everyone is still in their seats at this point, my guess is the passenger reached for their ID quickly (out of nervousness?). Reaching for ID quickly (from a pocket, a glove compartment, or a bag) looks an awful lot like reaching for a weapon quickly. Regardless of the outcome of that, backup would be called. Again, my guess, the officer retreated as the passenger dropped the bag, and called for backup. No way to tell if the officer actually got the passenger's ID or not (the adults in the car keep using the phrase "my information")
(Bear in mind here that police work generally regard traffic stops as one of the more dangerous "routine" aspects of the job. Through the 90's, roughly 5-6K cops were attacked at traffic stops per year. About 10 were killed per year.)
Back at the video, the officer suggests it's a good idea for the passenger to step out of the car. The passenger asks to speak to a "white shirt" (which urban dictionary tells me is prison slang for a supervising officer). Some unintelligible back-and-forth.
The driver mentions the passenger was going through a bag looking for his information when the officer drew a weapon (which lends credence to my earlier guess).
The passenger is told that he can open the door or it can be opened for him. When neither he nor the driver open it, the cops do. The window is smashed with a hooligan tool, the door is opened, the passenger is tased, pulled from the car and cuffed.
So, we've SEEN what happened (middle of a pullover, request for a supervisor, refusal to exit the vehicle, smash, taze, cuff).
We've been TOLD what some in the video CLAIM happened before (pulled over for a seat belt, family in a hurry to visit a deathly ill parent, passed information to the officers)
We can SEE what had to happen before to reach the point where we began (car pulled over, backup called)
That is IT. Anything more we glean from this video involves A) outside sources (a separate interview), B) conjecture or C) both.
((Side note: Interestingly enough, it looks like filming began long before this version, but that part of the tape hasn't been released in it's entirety by anyone. A Fox32 news broadcast showed clips of it, (the driver claiming she's already given her license, talk of a deathly ill family member, a Lt responds to the passenger's request for a white shirt with "look at my shoulders, dumbass. I got bars.") but doesn't show the entire thing. (it's from about 0:50-2:15 on this video below) The dashboard cam from the cops hasn't been released to the media.))
But, you may say, this was amateur hour. A Cellphone video taken by a 14 y/o kid. How about a police body cam?
Well, ok. But those have their limitations too. Let's look at this one.
(Be advised, this shows a police shooting)
Here's what I saw.
- The camera's picture quality dropped dramatically the second he entered the house. This is because even high-end cameras don't adjust themselves to levels of ambient light anywhere near as quickly or efficiently as the human eye can. If you're ever on a movie set, you'll see a LOT of lights hanging around the place. The reason they're there is to compensate for that limitation in the camera as well as design the look for artistic reasons. OK, back to the police shooting.
- The camera is placed on the officer's chest, probably around the second shirt button. Unfortunately, this means the picture is blocked by the officer's arm each time he uses his radio. (the microphone is mounted on the right shoulder. The presumably right-handed officer is keeping his primary hand on the weapon and pushing-to-talk using his left hand).
- Because of the camera's placement, it shows what's in front of the officer's torso, which isn't necessarily what's in front of his eyes (notice how he turns back to speak with the woman outside early on, and the camera moves a little bit? His head was moving more. The camera didn't show what he was seeing at that time.
Because the camera is just below his arms when in a firing stance, we also can't clearly see his target, as it's blocked by his arms and weapon.
- On the other hand, we do see the officer's actions from start to finish, word choice, his travel along the continuum of force, and the immediate aftermath.
So, now we've established a few things.
- Cameras only show what's in front of them at that moment in time.
-Cameras do not necessarily show what the wearer sees.
And most importantly
-Cameras cannot provide context, interpretation, or conjecture. Only human beings can do that.
So, how do we find out what a video's actually showing us?
Step one: Watch it.
Just watch the damn thing the way you normally would. Beginning to end. Get all the surprises out of your system.
Step two: Watch it again
Now, watch for what's overlooked. How did it start? Where is the camera? Who's operating it? Are you watching from when the camera turned on or are you watching a clip?
Stop it after a few seconds and write down what you SEE, and what you DON'T see.
If you don't see something and think it's there, ask yourself "why?"
Step three: watch with the sound off
See what you've missed. Sound has a serious effect on how we perceive something.
Write down three things
- what the camera SHOWED
- what the film IMPLIED
- what conclusions you are making based on CONJECTURE from the first 2.
Any idiot can pull out a camera and claim it "proves" X, Y, or Z. And because we as a culture are extremely attuned to suspending our disbelief of what appears to us on a screen, it's easy to convince us that a film "shows what really happens" (ESPECIALLY when it fits in line with our personal beliefs about what happened in any given circumstance).
Just remember, cameras may not lie, but camera ops are sneaky bastards and video exhibitors are the spiritual successors of PT Barnum himself.