Denver Police announced that they will purchase over 600 body cameras to be worn by police officers. These cameras will be at chest level and will record officer interactions with the public and criminal suspects. Although it is unclear if officers will have the discretion as to whether to turn on the cameras, Denver Police has assured that there will be mechanisms in place to prevent officers from turning off the cameras or altering the recordings in any way.
As a criminal defense attorney, I see the immediate benefit to the public and to criminal defendants: with the camera rolling, officers will be less likely to rough up suspects. Recent incidents, from Ferguson, Missouri to the Denver Jail to the beating of a grandmother near a freeway in Los Angeles, show that excessive use of force by law enforcement is a broad problem. So is officer safety, of course, and body cameras will provide an impartial (even if imperfect) recording of critical incidents between the public and law enforcement. The recordings can increase accountability and protect the innocent on either sides of a conflict, whether the innocent is a suspect or an officer.
Another key benefit is that there will be an actual recording of the events or statements that gave rise to certain criminal charges. Frequently, an officer writes a report well after an encounter between himself and a suspect, and he records the events that were important to that officer. This written report may not reflect events important to the criminal defendant, and may reflect assumptions and biases of the police officer.
In particular, when there is a direct conflict between the defendant and the officer, for instance in an obstruction of justice or resisting arrest case, it is natural for both sides to see things quite differently. However, only the police officer writes a report, and only the police officer has the benefit of being perceived as a neutral witness. District Attorneys then rely on those reports to make charging and plea offer decisions. The police officer will also then rely on this report to later testify as to the events of the alleged crime. A video is typically a better historian than a person with skin in the game, trying to justify his actions. A video will prevent certain exaggerations or mischaracterizations (intentional or not) from entering a police report and eventually becoming part of the “truth” of the case at trial.
Getting an accurate history (video or otherwise) up front is especially important, because trials can take place months or years after the original incident. Hastily written (or exaggerated, or inaccurate…) reports can present small challenges for an officer trying to testify one week after the incident, but those challenges can snowball and become massive when the testimony is needed much longer after the incident. Though that passage of time can sometimes hurt the prosecution, police officers tend to favor the prosecution. As such, any ambiguity or holes in the officer’s memory may be filled (unintentionally, even) by officers with facts that confirm the defendant’s guilt. It’s human nature, but it’s amplified when the officer is on the stand, wanting to look competent and wanting to help convict the defendant.
For instance, on a driving under the influence charge, it would be natural for an officer testifying in court to assume that, as he or she arrested the defendant, that the defendant was drunk. That assumption could easily lead the officer to testify that the defendant was acting as a drunk person would, which may not neutrally reflect what the officer observed. A video recording of the arrest ensures that the fact finder, the jury, is able to form an independent opinion as to the defendant’s alcohol impairment. Of course, such recordings will not benefit every criminal defendant—they will certainly help convict in cases where the incriminating evidence is compelling.
My primary concern with the cameras is actually that strong video evidence may empower some unreasonable prosecutors to avoid making reasonable plea offers, plea offers that they would and should otherwise make but for the strength of their case! Another concern is that a brief video may be powerful but misleading evidence, evidence that ignores a larger and important context that is not captured on video. These concerns are significant, and we’ll have to see how that all plays out over time.
On the whole, though, I believe officer-worn body cameras will be a good thing for the criminal defendant and the public. If used appropriately, they provide an unbiased contemporaneous recording of the events that led to criminal charges. While such a recording may assist the prosecution in proving some criminal charge, they will also provide innocent persons with exculpatory evidence, evidence they may have no other way of obtaining or proving. Guilty people being convicted, innocent people being acquitted, isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?