Eyewitness testimony: What did you really see?

Eyewitness testimony has become an important area of research in cognitive psychology and human memory. In court cases, juries tend to believe eyewitness testimony and generally see it as a reliable source of information when it comes to identifying perpetrators, or discussing details of a crime scene. However, how much of what witnesses say is accurate?

Research has actually found that what eyewitnesses recall and report can be affected by many different psychological factors, such as stress and selective attention. Witnessing a crime can – quite understandably – cause an extremely high level of anxiety, and this will affect how well a witness can remember details later on.

One example: When a weapon is used, eyewitnesses tend to focus on that and not notice other features that might be of importance. It is not unusual for a witness to be able to describe the weapon in much more detail than the person holding it. Not very useful when you are trying to convict the criminal!

Many people believe that memory works a bit like a videotape – that storing information is like recording and remembering is like playing back what was recorded, with information being retrieved in much the same form as it was input. However, memory does not actually work in this way.  It is a feature of human memory that we do not store information exactly as it is presented to us.  Instead, people extract the underlying meaning of what they see and experience, and tend to store it in the way that makes the most sense to them.  To put it another way, we process information by trying to fit it into patterns, which are our way of organizing it.

Eyewitness accidentThis means that eyewitness’s memories cannot always be relied upon. They are individual recollections which have been shaped and constructed according to personal stereotypes, beliefs, and expectations. Even recordings from security cameras can be interpreted differently depending on the viewer. However, video footage can also reveal aspects of an incident which may be missed by witnesses on the scene.

The value conveyed by security cameras cannot be understated. This is even more relevant when cameras become mobile, as with body worn models, which give as close to an eyewitness perspective as can be hoped through any form of surveillance (and have the added benefit of capturing audio). These cameras add a different perspective to static models and could even be equipped with smart functions to improve safety in cities, such as the ability to detect an escalation during an incident. For example, sensors could be added to the body worn camera to automatically activate recording when an officer pulls their weapon – without the need to press a button during a dangerous situation.

Following an incident, video may be the only evidence at hand. In this case, image quality and image usability can make all the difference in solving a crime or finding the perpetrators in a short time frame. Body worn cameras have the advantage of being close to the scene and can capture the dynamics of the situation. They provide clear audio and images in challenging situations and features like wide dynamic range technology (WDR) ensure the image remains visible and detailed, even if the people wearing the camera are exposed to complete darkness or bright sunlight.

It is also important that video and audio footage cannot be tampered with after recording. End-to-end encryption prevents manipulation and preserves its admissibility in subsequent investigations and court cases.

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple all had to rely on traditional means such as fingerprints, and finding a bit of fluff from the murderer’s scarf at the crime scene. But, looking back over historical crimes, if only there had been clear images, who knows how many more cases would have been solved? Fortunately, there are more reliable tools at hand to capture and relay video footage improving the ability to identify the culprits and ultimately bring them to justice.

Discover how body worn cameras can help improve safety in cities:

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