Gabry Vanderveen, assistant professor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, Lotte van Dillen, associate professor of Psychology at Leiden University and Teddy van Suchtelen, tutor of Criminology at Erasmus School of Law, have started an interdisciplinary empirical study entitled “Contesting Images”, funded by Police and Science. More and more images are being captured by smartphones, bodycams, and security cameras, and these are also increasingly used in the criminal justice chain. However, few protocols exist for dealing with such images and knowledge about their potentially biasing impact is still limited. The central question in this project is therefore what police officers learn about the interpretation of images and how critical analyzation of images can be improved.
Footage from cameras that have recorded an arrest, pursuit, confession or crime scene in real-time is also known as evidence verité. Many people think that these kinds of camera images show what really happened; "Camera images don't lie". For example, it is often thought that images are 'objective' and 'true', and that 'images speak for themselves'. This ties in with naive realism: the human tendency to believe that images show reality. Thanks to this naive realism, we often find it unnecessary to discuss the meanings of camera images or a photo: the images speak for themselves. But images do not speak for themselves. The viewers do that, when interpreting the image. A viewer may become aware of possible different interpretations when it becomes clear that someone else sees something completely different, or when one sees images of themselves that describe a different situation than how he or she experienced that situation. Differences in interpretations of visual material sometimes also become apparent during the hearing, when a suspect's defence explains a different possible interpretation. Or when the interpretation of images by police officers who have drawn up an official report is not consistent with the interpretation of, for example, the judge.
The research builds on knowledge from various disciplines and an earlier research project into the use of visual material in the interrogation of suspects. As in that study, different methods are now being used to best answer the research questions. First, documents such as police training and examination materials and scientific literature will be collected and analysed. For example, an inventory is made of what police officers learn about interpreting images, the problems involved in interpreting and which guidelines and viewing instructions already exist to interpret images properly. This should show how best to counter possible cognitive distortions (biases). Vanderveen: “In an experiment among police officers, we will investigate which viewing instructions work best. This will form the basis for a 'view pointer' for practice. During the entire research, we ask for input from that practice so that we can also refine the research in consultation.”
Given the increase in visual material and the expectation that visual material will also increasingly be used in criminal proceedings, this research is both scientifically and practically relevant.