“Assumed Realism” – What is it and what does it mean for law enforcement?

By Jeff Martin  |   Sep 6, 2019

When people watch critical police incidents on video, it is important to remember that they undergo the same perceptual processes as they would if they were experiencing the event directly. That is, they (1) take in what they see and hear; (2) compare that input against the databanks in their minds pertaining to what they know or believe about the world; and (3) form their interpretations of the experience. This, along with normal emotional reactions and failing to consider the two-dimensional distortion effects inherent to video footage, often results in the jumping to conclusions about officer conduct. It raises the question as to why people assume that their perceptions of events—based upon video representation in which source camera perspectives are not even close to those of involved officers—provide sufficient information upon which to form rational conclusions.

In searching for a succinct term to explain this perceptual dynamic, I followed the lead of Dr. Marc Green, a noted experimental psychologist and author of excellent books and articles pertaining to forensic vision. In his book Roadway Human Factors: From Science to Application, Dr. Green explains the psychological concept of “naïve realism,” defining it as “the false notion that seeing is a passive process where the eyes transmit a complete, objective reality to our consciousness.” A more simplified definition of naïve realism is the “belief that one’s perceptions are realistic [and] unbiased interpretations of the social world.”

Therefore, I have fashioned the term “assumed realism” to help explain the typical human tendency to jump to conclusions based upon the perspective of events in the context of video footage, while failing to consider the involved officers’ real-time physical perspectives as required by Graham v. Connor.

This phenomenon was demonstrated in a recent officer-involved shooting. The morning after the shooting occurred, an employee arrived to work in the building next to the alley in which the incident took place. Another worker in the building asked him, “Do you want to watch the most f***ed-up video you’ll ever see in your life?” The employee said yes and proceeded to watch the silent video, which was captured from two rooftop-mounted surveillance cameras that covered the incident from two angles.

Later, the employee stated that the video depicted a suspect walking “at an average pace” toward one end of the alley when a police car entered the alley from the opposite direction. The employee then noted that the police car stopped, the officer stepped out, left the car door “wide open,” and assumed a “relaxed stance.” During this time, the suspect continued to walk towards a dumpster to his right. When the suspect was “about 15 feet away” from the officer, the officer “raised his handgun and shot the suspect without notice.”

The employee declared that he was shocked by what he saw in the video, noting that the officer did not make any gestures for the suspect to stop, used no other force options, did not assume a shooting stance, and appeared to have hastily shot the suspect in an “unprovoked” manner. He further articulated that the suspect’s pace slowed and he had stopped moving forward just before being shot.

A frame-by-frame examination of the surveillance video revealed that (1) the officer had closed his car door; (2) the suspect was not walking toward the dumpster, but was alongside it or had just passed it; and (3) he was in mid-step at the time the single round was fired.

Before the shooting, the police dispatcher broadcasted the call as an in-progress brandishing of a knife. It included the suspect’s description and last-known location. Just after the officer radioed that he had arrived, the channel operator indicated that the suspect was in a back lot “threatening people with the knife.” Before he got out of his patrol car, the officer spotted the suspect—who matched the description—walking toward him while holding a metal object in his right hand with his arm oriented toward the officer.

The closest witness reported hearing the officer say “drop it!” just before firing. Another witness reported seeing the officer “take a semi-aggressive stance,” but did not recall hearing the officer say anything.

Forensics indicated that the suspect had closed to within 15 to 16 feet of the officer by the time the shot was fired. The video evidence showed that a little over one second had elapsed from the time the officer got out of his patrol car and closed the door until he fired his gun. The metal object turned out to be an ink pen of substantial metal construction.

The totality-of-the-circumstances analysis concluded that the officer was responding to an in-progress call involving a suspect who had threatened others with a knife; that the suspect was walking toward the officer as he held a metal object to the front of his body in his right hand; and that the suspect continued to walk toward the officer after being told to stop. It was also an event that unfolded rapidly and at night time, with the primary source of illumination being the patrol car’s headlights.

The employee’s declaration implying that the shooting was unreasonable is a prime example of assumed realism. It is oftentimes difficult to react to the inherently distorted and deceptive perspective of video footage in an unbiased manner, but it is critically important that we remember that the feet-on-the-ground reality is often much different.

While we frequently see members of the media, politicians, unprofessional prosecutors, and members of the public fall victim to assumed realism—some more wittingly than others—it is always disappointing to see those within our own profession engage in it. In my experience, the best way to combat this natural human tendency is to constantly remind ourselves of its existence and the fact that we are all subject to it. This should also be supplemented by training which details the proper way to analyze video evidence; e.g., such review should be performed on a large monitor, in a media player that allows for single-frame advance and reverse, and with detailed examinations of each subject’s actions. This recognition is vital if we wish to successfully educate all stakeholders while supporting one another both professionally and ethically.