Truth Lost When Officers View Body Cam Footage

Police Body Camera Stock
Share:

Police Body Camera StockBy Jeff Adachi

In a few months, 2,000 San Francisco police officers will be outfitted with body cameras. These tiny recording devices serve as objective witnesses and hold the promise to revolutionize the accuracy of investigations.

Today, the San Francisco Police Commission will take on a contentious and crucial question: Should officers be allowed to review their body camera footage before writing their reports?

The top national eyewitness experts say no, especially in cases in which the officer may have a vested interest in the case. If a police officer is allowed to look at the video, it will consciously or unconsciously influence what he or she writes in a report. Consequently, we will lose the officers’ independent evaluation of what happened.

This is important because, while viewing the footage can show us precisely what happened, it cannot tell us an officer’s perception of an event. It cannot inform us of heightened stress, competing distractions or fear. Only an officer’s untainted recollection can provide this vital piece of evidence.

Let’s say you have a police officer who believes he sees a motorist running a red light. When we look at the video from the officer’s body camera, we see the light was green. The officer has already written the ticket. Is that officer going to feel pressure to find some other grounds to justify the arrest because the video shows he’s wrong? Of course.

Let me give you another example: An officer nabs someone for resisting arrest. The officer says the suspect struggled while being handcuffed. The footage shows this isn’t true. Now if the officer is allowed to view the video, how is he or she going to write the report? Is the officer going to let the person go and admit it was a mistake? Or will the officer be tempted to add other facts to justify the arrest?

Video can be used to expose officers who deliberately lie, confabulate or exaggerate their reports. In the much-publicized fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the recently released footage quickly disproved officers’ long-held claims about McDonald’s behavior. If the police officers involved had viewed the footage before making statements, they might have tailored their accounts to comport with the video.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association has vigorously opposed any policy that would limit the officers’ rights to see the video in every instance. The POA even opposes the Mayor’s Working Group recommendation that police be prohibited from viewing footage when the officer shoots a citizen or is accused of criminal wrongdoing.

This position is at odds with virtually every expert opinion.

The Inspector General for the New York Police Department, who provides oversight for the nation’s largest police force, has said that NYPD should limit officers’ rights to view the footage in any cases involving possible police misconduct.

Dr. Kathy Pezdek, one of the nation’s top eyewitness experts, says eyewitnesses, including police officers, are susceptible to being influenced by body camera footage. This post-event information makes eyewitness accounts less reliable, not more.

“Once an officer has viewed the video, his account is no longer a reliable source of evidence about his perception of what transpired at the time,” Dr. Pezdek writes. “This valuable information is forever lost.”

Viewing footage before writing an eyewitness account creates a double standard by treating police differently from civilian witnesses. Civilian witnesses will not be allowed to watch the video before making a statement, and the police shouldn’t be allowed to either.

Officials in San Jose determined their police should not view video in officer involved shootings, in-custody deaths or any intentional act by an officer that causes injury likely to produce death. Richmond, which was the first Bay Area police department to use body cameras, has a similar policy. We should follow their examples.

If the Police Commission makes the wrong decision today, we will lose the ability to require officers to write down their independent recollection as to what happened. Instead, we will get a police version, which will always agree with the video. It will destroy one of the main reasons to have the body cameras in the first place: to provide a check and balance between the police perception and video evidence.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender.

Share:

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

Related posts

12 thoughts on “Truth Lost When Officers View Body Cam Footage”

  1. Frankly

    So, since the issue is mistrust of the government employees hired to serve and protect all Americans, how about we record all work interactions for DAs and all other government employees?  I would especially want to do this with all IRS employees.  Especially the political appointees.  Also the politicians.  And we should also have access to all their personal emails since it is clear that they use their personal emails for work.

    Talk about the potential to cause harm and then tailor their BS.

  2. Anon

    Let’s say you have a police officer who believes he sees a motorist running a red light. When we look at the video from the officer’s body camera, we see the light was green. The officer has already written the ticket. Is that officer going to feel pressure to find some other grounds to justify the arrest because the video shows he’s wrong? Of course.”

    This makes no sense to me.  If the officer puts in his report that the guy is being charged with running a red light, how can the officer change his/her report to comport with the video?  He clearly goofed.

    The only reason I can see for not allowing officers to view the body cam video footage first is that the officer’s untainted perception of events may be crucial.  Video footage often does not tell the entire story.

    1. Anon

      From: http://www.latimes.com/local/crime/la-me-shooting-video-police-20151125-story.html

      “But, even as demonstrators took to Chicago’s streets Tuesday night to protest the shooting of McDonald by a white police officer, law enforcement experts around the nation warned that recordings like the one that captured the teen’s death can paint an incomplete picture.

      “Knowing what happens on video after it happens is totally different than knowing what the cop was thinking and what he will say he was thinking,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former assistant district attorney in New York City. “The video obviously could be damning in terms of a criminal case, but the ultimate question is, is there malice towards the kid? Is it totally unwarranted under any view of the evidence? The video does not speak for itself.”

    2. Davis Progressive

      “If the officer puts in his report that the guy is being charged with running a red light, how can the officer change his/her report to comport with the video?  He clearly goofed.”

      correct.  but if they can view the video before writing the report, then he can avoid incriminating himself.

  3. Biddlin

    I have had the opportunity to make and review a number of incident and accident reports in the course of my duties as a public employee.  I have also made three reports to the police for property crimes involving my home. I have never seen one that the cops got right. The cops are not good at details like direction of travel or accurate recitation of witness’ statements. They are not good at perjury, either, but that is frequently their default position. YMMV

  4. tribeUSA

    I disagree, and think that the police should be able to review the video before writing their reports, for a number of reasons. Among these is a principal of proportionality: after all, any witnesses who record the police:suspect interaction will have the opportunity to review their video before submitting their story to the police and newspapers (and possibly contracting with the media for showing their video), and who is to stop them from editing their own private video before turning it over to the justice system or the media? At least the police are not permitted to do any editing of their videos, which are not their private property.

    Another point is that such a restriction will inevitably used by many activists to embarass and attempt to vilify the police when the videos show they made a mistake in their reports (villainous motives will be attributed to honest mistakes), and contribute to an effort to poison and sow further public distrust in the police.

    Yes the police make some mistakes in perception and memory, as we all do; the evidence that is in the videos will come to light eventually, for both the prosecution and the defense side if the suspect is charged.

  5. Miwok

    I am really interested in why people are so intent on accuracy yet want to prohibit the opportunity to get it?

    The reason the people are so incensed is the video of the Chicago kid started at the end, and failed to capture enough of the surrounding scene, and previous crucial minutes of the incident which may be in the report but have no video.

    As I mentioned in previous posts, there needs to be independent auditing of the video and audio, and not by the Police or DA. I don’t think there is anyone to do this, and we know the State is not independent enough either. Too bad, all we will get is arguing about incidents with reasonable doubt of an Officers’ word vs the video of maybe a few minutes of a deplorable arrest. More criminals on the street? But then, People in Davis are on the record of not caring about that..

    1. PhilColeman

      Your first sentence is profound. There is much convoluted logic here. The quest for truth and accuracy is always tempered by one’s particular version of the truth, the version that reinforces inner-bred and pre-ordained biases. No better examples can be found than the posts found here and elsewhere, from both ends of the spectrum.

      If only we could go back in time and allow legal interpretations of potential unlawful behavior to be the realm of the courts. We should have the analysis and interpretation of a video presentation in a court of law; a controlled environment, regulated by detailed evidence codes and relevant case law. Portions of a video that are irrelevant, too inflammatory for neutral judgment are excluded by judicial decree. Two versions of a viewing are persuasively argued by opposing legal counsel. Then a ruling is found.

      We’ve unwittingly set a precedent that cannot be reversed. A video is immediately released to the court of public opinion and chaos often results, in a venue with literally no rules. When a video is withheld for any reason, cover-up charges always follow, inciting the masses. The die has been cast, release every video immediately and let everybody see it. We’ve become a voyeuristic society anyway, and that too cannot be reversed.

  6. Tia Will

    Phil

    If only we could go back in time and allow legal interpretations of potential unlawful behavior to be the realm of the courts.”

    I think that perhaps you have a rosier version of the days when legal interpretation was the sole realm of the courts than I. When one group’s word is the law, there must be absolute certainty that they will never abuse their interpretation of the law and their interpretation of how precedent is to be applied on the basis of their bias. I see judges as neither unbiased nor impartial. Once local, if old example is Judge Stevens with his “what’s a little wife beating?” attitude. I certainly would not want him hearing a domestic violence case. I feel that this lack of transparency was and is dangerous. Somewhere between judicial only review with its complete lack of transparency and an instantaneous electronic lynch mob, there must be some middle ground.

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for