Body Camera Obscura: The Semiotics of Police Video

Publication Title

American Criminal Law Review

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 2017


Our understanding of violent encounters between the police and civilians is now primarily mediated by video images. With surprising rapidity, recording these encounters has become an integral part of modern policing, sparking the current body camera bonanza.

When these recordings are used as evidence in police use-of-force cases, the factfinders must decide whether the police officer's actions are "reasonable" under the Fourth Amendment. But there is an unrecognized fault line between "police video" (video recorded by the police in the course of their official duties) and "eyewitness video" (recorded by bystander-witnesses). Police video tends to recirculate dominant narratives of violence and masculinity as heroic ideals that coexist easily with the legal standard of the reasonable officer. In contrast, eyewitness videos typically offer the counter-narrative of an abusive state.

These images have evidentiary value, but also cultural currency. They reflect back to us our feelings about violence, race, masculinity, and the law. This article proposes a descriptive critique of the use of video evidence in assessing the lawfulness of police violence. Using insights from semiotics, film criticism, cultural theory, and cognitive psychology, it attempts to sketch out a more nuanced way of approaching video evidence in the context of these cases.


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Recommended Citation

Caren Myers Morrison, Body Camera Obscura: The Semiotics of Police Video, 54 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 791 (2017).





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