Videotaping interrogations could have foreseeable complications

The integrity of our criminal justice system is closely linked to the methods used to elicit confessions. This is one reason the American Bar Association and others support the videotaping of interrogations. As I mentioned in my last review, taping can deter interrogators from using inappropriate or illegal methods.

Unfortunately, videotaping is not without complications. For example, research has consistently demonstrated that the angle of the camera influences a viewer’s perception of the voluntariness of the statement and the suspect’s guilt.  Social scientists call this phenomena camera perspective bias. In a very interesting study, Lassiter et al. (2007) demonstrated that even expertise in the field is not enough to mitigate camera perspective bias. Judges and law enforcement officers rated the interrogation as more voluntary when the camera was focused on the suspect than when the camera angle was on the detective or equally focused on both parties (equal-focus angle).

Based on this and other research, one could conclude that an equal-focus camera perspective can eliminate the camera perspective bias. However, Ratcliff et al. (2010) suggests it is not that simple. Their study, The Hidden Consequence of Racial Salience in Videotaped Interrogations and Confessions, is fascinating and very detailed. I am going to give you an overview followed by a more detailed account of the research. But first, you have to understand racial salience bias because it was the construct or idea that Ratcliff et al. (2010) examined. Racial salience bias is “the tendency for majority group observers to attend more to minority suspects when the latter are paired with Caucasian interrogators, which, in turn, leads to illusory causation– induced prejudicial judgments of suspects.” p. 204. In other words, when the person viewing the videotape and the interrogator are both European American and the suspect is a member of an ethnic group, the viewer is likely to pay more attention to the suspect. Racial salience bias is unintentional and “seems more a consequence of perceptual processes than conceptual (reasoning) processes” p. 214.

In a series of experiments, Ratcliff et al. (2010) documented this phenomena when interrogations are recorded using an equal-focused camera perspective. For example, even when researchers statistically control for the racial stereotypes and biases of the European American observer and the suspect is an ethnic minority member, Ratcliff et al. (2010) found that the European American observers rate the interrogation as more voluntary and the suspect more guilty, therefore imposing a harsher sentence as opposed to when the suspect is European American.

What are the real life implications of this study? As with camera perspective bias, racial salience bias should be added to discussions about how to video interrogations and the impact of doing so. This does not mean that they shouldn’t be videotaped, just that those relying on the tapes to make legal decisions should be aware of racial salience bias. Ratcliff et al.  (2010) suggests reducing or eliminating the bias by matching the race of the suspect and the interrogator. I question the feasibility of this. Another strategy is to have law enforcement and the justice system rely on both a transcript of the interrogation as well as a videotape. For the logic behind this strategy, see my description of the first experiment in the research summary below.

Videotaping, even with its challenges, can be a valuable tool in the criminal justice system. While we continue to research ways to improve fairness in the system, we should remember that it is not a perfect tool, and keep in mind the possibility of complications, such as racial salience bias.

Research Summary

In The Hidden Consequence of Racial Salience in Videotaped Interrogations and Confessions, Ratcliff et al. (2010) presented three experiments examining whether or not the benefits of an equal focused camera perspective hold true when the person viewing the interrogation and confession is European American and the suspect is a minority group member. In each study, the subjects were European American college students. The crime was a hit and run accident.

In the first study, half of the subjects were shown an equal-focused camera perspective with a European American interrogator and a Chinese American suspect. The other half of the subjects read a transcript of the interrogation. The transcript did not provide information about the race of the interrogator or suspect.  The suspect’s statement was more likely to be judged voluntary when the subjects watched the interrogation, as opposed to reading the transcript. The authors concluded that this offered support for racial salience bias in equal-focused camera interrogations.

In order to explore the impact of race on equal-focused camera perspective, the second experiment varied the suspect’s race (either Chinese American, African American, or European American) while the interrogator was always European American. Subjects were asked to rate the voluntariness of the statement and the suspect’s guilt. Subjects were also asked how likely they thought an African American, Chinese American, or European American was to commit a hit and run. If the suspect saw an interrogation with an African American or Chinese American suspect, they completed a questionnaire that assessed their prejudice toward African Americans or Chinese Americans.

Ratcliff et al. (2010) found that perception of voluntariness and guilt varied as a function of the suspect’s race.  When the suspect was African American or Chinese American, their statement was more likely to be rated as voluntary and they were viewed as being guiltier than their European American counterparts.  These findings held true even when one considers the subject’s level of racial prejudice and attitudes toward these groups. Ironically, even though European Americans were rated as more likely than Chinese Americans to commit a hit and run accident, subjects rated statements from European Americans as less voluntary and the suspects as less guilty. This suggests that racial salience bias prevailed despite the subject’s race related crime stereotypes.

In the third experiment, Ratcliff et al. (2010) varied the race of the interrogator (Chinese American or European American) and held the race of the suspect constant, a Chinese American. Subjects indicated the degree to which they thought the statement was voluntary, and provided a recommendation regarding the severity of the suspect’s sentence, if convicted. Subjects were given a scale to assess their racial prejudice toward Chinese Americans. As was the case in the previous experiments, the authors found support for racial salience bias. Statements from Chinese American suspects were rated as being more voluntary and the suspect more guilty when the interrogator was European American.  In that case, the suspect also received a harsher sentence. As with the previous experiment, these findings remained even when one accounted for the suspect’s racial attitudes and prejudices against Chinese Americans. Finally, Ratcliff et al. (2010) assessed how attentive subjects were to the suspect and the detective. Subjects were more attentive to the things the Chinese American suspect did or said when the interrogator was European American rather than a Chinese American interrogator.

These findings suggest that because of racial salience bias, videotaping interrogations from an equal camera perspective may have some complications for suspects of color. This does not mean the interrogations should not be videotaped, just that it comes with foreseeable complications.

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