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In video age, a rush to judgment?

Cellphone videos of a police killing in Oakland, Calif., spark outrage.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 2009

Gabrielle Rae (r.), held a photo of Oscar Grant while attending a BART board of directors meeting in Oakland, Calif. on Jan. 8.

Noah Berger/AP

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Oakland, Calif.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the videos of a uniformed police officer shooting an unarmed man lying on his belly are worth, in the eyes of many Oakland residents, at least three: Arrest the cop.

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The police killing of Oscar Grant III has drawn national attention and already sparked a riot last week in downtown Oakland. The young black man was in a group pulled off a train here early on New Year's Day by transit police responding to reports of rowdy passengers.

Public hearings this past weekend revealed escalating anger with officials overseeing the investigations into the incident. The district attorney has projected that charges, if any, could take another 10 days. Community leaders say that pace is unacceptable given the "conclusive" footage.

But in a time when cellphone video is demanding greater police accountability, sometimes eyewitness video can also make the story more complex.

A new study calls into question the entire notion of a "conclusive video." Researchers interviewed hundreds of people about a tape that eight Supreme Court justices deemed so incontrovertible that it formed the basis of a summary judgment. It turned out, however, that many people interpreted the footage quite differently.

"If there's one lesson in this [study], it should be that we don't make the mistake of thinking that the tape speaks for itself," says Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor and lead author of the study to be published in the forthcoming Harvard Law Review.

"You've got to have all the evidence in the case. What people were thinking, what people heard, what's going on outside the camera frame," he says.

The research jumped off the Scott v. Harris decision of 2007, a case that revolved around the use of deadly force by police during a car chase. Video from inside a cruiser proved so compelling for eight of the nine justices that they took the unprecedented step of uploading it to the court's website to allow the tape "to speak for itself."

Mr. Kahan and his colleagues decided to ask a diverse sample of 1,350 people across the country whether the video spoke to them in similar ways. Roughly 75 percent of those interviewed said that deadly force was warranted – as the court majority verdict did – with the remaining quarter disagreeing. The divide mapped along recognizable social divisions such as race, ideology, and religion.

"People who have different ideas about how society works interpret what look like plain old facts differently," says Kahan.

Watching a video, he says, requires interpreting what happened before the camera started rolling, what's happening outside the frame, and what's going on in the minds of the people shown.

Police action in a video age

Interpretations notwithstanding, the increasing ubiquity of cellphone video has ensured greater police accountability.

Last July, for instance, in an incident between a rookie New York City cop and a cyclist, the officer claimed that the cyclist deliberately steered into him. Video of the incident, however, indicated the opposite to be true – resulting in the officer being charged with assault and harassment.