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Criminology

I’m interested in how individuals in decision-making positions use various sorts of evidence to account for their choices.

In the summer of 2016 I was teaching a media sociology course when two videos of police involved shootings – Alton Stirling and Philando Castile – ‘went viral’ within a week of each other. Earlier in the year, Toronto Police Service's constable James Forcillo was convicted of attempted murder in an incident where he shot and killed an 18-year-old man named Sammy Yatim. The Stirling and Castile incidents spurred me to examine the Forcillo case.

The Forcillo verdict was perplexing – how could someone be convicted of attempted murder when they killed that person? Video evidence was instrumental for the jury’s decision, at least according to the judge and media accounts. As I examined the decision in detail, I became skeptical that the video did as much work as suggested. I found the video only really ‘made sense’ after reading excerpts of the coroner’s report and Forcillo’s testimony in court. The video didn’t seem to solve the problem of ‘what actually happened,’ but rather raised issues that had to be addressed in trial.

When dashboard and body cameras started to roll out in Canada and the United States, criminologists were optimistic that they may further drive accountability of police officers – that police would no longer ‘control the narrative’ in explaining their decision to use deadly force. Through the Forcillo incident, and several criminal cases in the United States, what we seem to be seeing is that police still do control the narrative and the narrative is being adapted in light of these videos. Videos of violence, by their nature, tend to be very confusing. Juries seem reluctant to second-guess the accounts police officers give that exonerate those officers.

This research focuses on case studies. There are only five cases in Canada and the United States where video evidence has contributed to a jury’s decision to convict police officers for on-duty violence. The next phase of this research is to review those cases, along with several high-profile acquittals, to consider how video evidence contributed to those decisions.

When people read The Documentary Method of [Video] Interpretation, I hope they consider the work they do when making sense of videos. In our culture, we invest a lot of authority in images – “a picture tells a thousand words” – and we don’t tend to question how our experiences influence our interpretation of images. With the massive proliferation of videos of various sorts(and the spectacular capacity to edit and alter images), it is important to think through how we use video.

My hope is this research will be taken up by judges and lawyers, that it will be used to consider the instructions that are given to jurors who decide on ‘what actually happened’ in violent incidents. I would like to see more empowerment for jurors, and that the accounts accompanying video evidence, from either the prosecution or the defence, are given greater scrutiny, especially in incidents of police-involved violence.

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