Police Psychology | Those Damn Cameras

Posted: September 10, 2015 in Rank and Leadership
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Police Psychology | Those Damn Cameras


Body cameras are the latest “big thing” in policing, and thus those in the field of police psychology needs to explore how that affects the job.  Although people argue that body cameras are a good thing, they can also impose an incredible amount of additional police stress on cops, which can adversely impact their performance.

Psychology | camera

Those in police psychology need to explore how the advent of technology, specifically cameras, impacts police work.

As a society, we are obsessed with cameras, recordings, pictures, and the like. Many inventions today have to do with capturing the perfect picture , apps are created in which people communicate just through pictures (instagram) or videos (snapchat). In fact, we have even managed to add the word “selfie” into the dictionary. We have become very focused on visuals—on seeing ourselves and other people plastered across the Internet. Perhaps this is in an attempt to make ourselves feel good, to show everyone how pretty, talented or happy we are. Or perhaps it is a way of communicating with other people, a way to seek other people’s approval or admiration, or even advice. It is plain and simply easier and faster to see “a thousand words” rather than write them (my personal belief for the obsession with visuals when I see how bad people write today).   Regardless of the reason, the truth remains: we love documenting our lives and ourselves, and we love seeing (or judging) the lives of others. But, in this world of YouTube and vlogs (video blogs in which people document their daily lives and post them on different media platforms) and body cameras on police officers, where do we draw the line?

The Hawthorne Effect

What if everyone wore body cameras all the time? What if your shrink, lawyer, children, parents, teachers, partners, doctors, and dentists wore body cameras throughout all the interactions they have throughout the day? We’d hear doctors showing no empathy at all for some of their patients, lawyers talking about murder fantasies with some of their clients, psychologists imitating some of their patient’s quirks (c’mon you have to have known), and teachers saying things that would suggest you would never let them around your children. Most importantly, how would a video camera cause us to change our daily behavior? ( I, of course, would never imitate my patient’s quirks, “like, you know what I mean, like,” sorry still there)

Camera,, police psychologypolcie psychology

It is understood in police psychology that when you are being observed, you tend to perform more optimally.

In the early 1900’s, The Hawthorne Works electric factory wanted to see if greater light intensity or low light intensity increased work productivity. They hired people to observe the employees as they worked in dim light and bright light to try to determine which setting was most effective. However, they made a surprising observation. They noticed that the workers performed best, not specifically during bright or dim light, but during the length of the experiment. As soon as the experiment ended, their productivity went down. This became the basis for the observer bias, also known as the Hawthorne Effect, where people tend to modify or improve their behavior when they know they are being observed. You’ve probably experienced this one yourself. Has someone you like ever come watch you perform in a sports game or a play? Chances are if you know they’re watching, you run just a little bit faster, you throw just a little bit harder. You perform just a little bit better. The truth is, when we know we’re being watched, we tend to improve our performance, even slightly. We may not even realize we’re doing this. So if everyone wore body cameras, would we all operate a little more…optimally?  Would we be more polite, friendlier, nicer, more effective? If you knew someone was watching you, would you stay at the door just a second longer to hold it for the next person? Would you say hi to the people you passed on the street as you walked home or to work? Would you work harder at the office and take less solitaire, bathroom, and phone breaks if you knew your boss was watching? The thought of being watched at all times would probably give many of us pause before we did something questionable, and would probably help encourage us to do something typically we wouldn’t do.

Not so fast with the assumption, Sherlock! If you knew someone was watching your play, wouldn’t you ham it up a little? Yea, most likely you’d get a little more “porky.” We find that in court all the time when people tape their conversations.   There is a downside to being constantly recorded. When we watch videos on the news of people attacking others, or reacting with undue aggression in certain situations, we tend to be extremely judgmental. In all the cases of police brutality that have come out, there have been sides and arguments and he-saids and she-saids. The capability to pause, repeat, rewatch—analyze allows us to pick some little minutia and blow that up. When the media does that, it becomes dangerous.  Does a police officer have that right in a split second decisions? Police psychology has to look closely at that. We can explore the “he should have” and the “what ifs.” The truth is, this isn’t always possible in real life. There is no pause button in a real life situation. Sometimes aggression is necessary; sometimes it is the only solution, even if it’s not an easy decision. Body cameras, however, can have the adverse effect of adding a bad hesitation to people’s actions. And, while this hesitation may be good for an average citizen who is debating about stealing a chocolate bar from the local store, it is certainly not good for a police officer who is caught between protecting the public and taking down a perp. All these considerations multiply the police stress that those in police psychology need to deal with.

The Double-Edged Sword

If you ever go on YouTube and watch people’s daily vlogs you can get a sense for this type of stress. You hear these vloggers explain anytime they do something they think their viewers won’t approve of, “I’m sorry I’m snacking on this chocolate bar. I was just really hungry and was craving sweets.”  I have police officers who say things like, “what happens if I have to go to the bathroom. I can’t go behind the storage place like I used to or stop beside the road.” When we are being observed, we feel the need to make excuses to preempt any possible attacks that can be forthcoming based on our behavior. We do this to protect ourselves, as a defense mechanism for our self-esteem. While this may be good in certain situations, in others it would just give people an excuse to judge us, give us a reason to question our own integrity and ourselves. Body cameras are certainly a double-edged sword—they can be extremely beneficial, and yet they can produce some very unfavorable consequences, negatively impacting police psychology and increasing police stress.

Police psychology: simple steps3 Steps to Consider When Told You Will Wear a Body Camera


  1. Nothing Changed – Don’t obsess!  Since the days of Rodney King every police officer has known that someone has a camera around the corner and the news will only show a piece of the clip is possible. Do you expect it now to be different? If you work in business, every boss can dial you up on the computer at any time, get a video of you, and criticize what you do. This is the world we now live in. Remember this on any job, there is no more of the sanctity of a private conversation. Even without the camera a lawyer or another party will stretch the truth to win a battle and that may include outright lying. Nothing really had changed when you put the camera right on your body.
  2. Judging is for Beauty Contests – Remember how bad it feels to be judged the next time you are in a position to judge. It is easy to say, but not so easy to do. Keep this in mind, people who are constantly judging others are generally not happy people. And if you are not a judgmental person, it is more likely those around you will not be as judgmental of you, although it is not 100 percent, not even ninety percent, or seventy. People do love their judgments, but reducing your judgments can work to reduce theirs.
  3. Learn to Not Be Defensive – This is another one that is easier said than done. When confronted with the stupidity of others, don’t bother to fuel their fire by defending yourself. Don’t give them further reasons to attack you. Do not respond to an attack with an attack back. “Given the situation and the time I had to make a decision that was an appropriate response.” When they confront you hit them with the broken record “Given the situation and the time I had to make a decision that was an appropriate response.” They will stop if they get no other answer, and any other answer will have them trying to convince you more of how you are an idiot.


Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D.

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