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Impact of Video & Police Body Cameras in Police Abuse Cases

Impact of Video & Police Body Cameras in Police Abuse Cases


Impact of Video & Police Body Cameras in Police Abuse Cases

Police-incited confrontations are not a new phenomenon. The George Floyd case illustrated the significant value of cell phone video to the press. However, police bodycam footage often faces issues such as being recorded over, obscured, or misdirected. In contrast, cell phone videos capture more unbiased and consistent footage, highlighting incidents previously accepted without question by juries due to the lack of visual evidence.

The growing use of police body-worn cameras and civilian-recorded footage, exemplified by activists like Chille from DeleteLawz, has revealed disparities in law enforcement’s accountability. These videos have become crucial in forming the basis of citizen complaints and civil rights lawsuits despite the disdain from law enforcement agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department.

Body Worn Cameras and Dishonest Police Officers 101

As police use of force citizen complaints escalate, we see many officers wearing body cameras turning off whole sections, so the video captured misses their abusive conduct/statements. In other words, these body camera programs are not popular with cops, and “JBTP” hates it when body camera videos show up on the web. They hate it even more when body-worn cameras are contradicted by citizens with cell cam footage.

Let me illustrate this with a few critical points about police body cameras: 

  • Officer-worn body cameras recording body camera footage are becoming increasingly common evidence in court cases, in particular, domestic violence cases.
  • Public access to these videos has made police misconduct more visible, casting a shadow over the criminal justice system due to frequent plaintiffs’ missing footage.
  • Body cams and civilian recordings provide unique perspectives on police abuse, including officer-involved shootings, challenging the effectiveness of body camera programs.

An officer wearing a body cam or a citizen recording critical incidents can offer a unique perspective on police abuse and, in particular, officer-involved shootings. Naturally, this results in body cams being scrutinized more closely than ever before, and the disappearance of body-worn video defeats the purpose of body-worn camera programs nationwide. The intent was to use body-worn cams so that onlookers or people in the public could see the scene from the viewpoint of officers wearing cameras. And that takes us to the heart of the action concerning modern policing and citizen resistance.

Police Departments and Youtube Auditors

The footage from police body cameras and civilian recordings paints complex pictures of incidents, often influenced by subsequent emotional interpretations or narrative edits. This challenges the objective observer role the body camera program aimed to achieve. Hence, it is essential that First Amendment auditors and YouTube influencers, such as Chille and DeleteLawz, bring police accountability.

Chille’s approach underscores a critical perspective: officers behave more respectfully when being recorded. This observation highlights the invaluable role of video footage in fostering justice for both the public and the police in today’s digital age. As complaints regarding police use of force escalate, many officers found wearing body cameras have been reported to disable them selectively. This act ensures that the video captured does not include their abusive conduct or statements, reflecting the unpopularity of these camera programs among police officers. The disdain is extreme when body camera videos contradict civilian footage, revealing the truth.

The film paints a picture of the incident, along with edits filtered by emotions or subsequent accounts of unfolding events in the eyes of law enforcement. It is not the unbiased observer the body-worn camera program strived to achieve. This is why we need First Amendment auditors and others, including YouTube influencers such as Chille and Delete Lawz. Chille takes police accountability to a new level, with over a half million subscribers and views that are off the charts.

“The camera sees what it sees, without emotion, without prejudice. It simply records the moments as they unfold.”

Chille says officers are more respectful and less likely to violate you, if they know they are on camera. The value of having such a perspective at our fingertips should not be underestimated. It is a tool for justice – for both the public and the police. In this era when everyone has a camera phone, bodycam footage is playing an increasingly critical role in shaping public opinions about alleged police. Instead, with the advent of new technology, we are now seeing a surge in awareness of the problem of excessive force by law enforcement officers because of body cameras worn by police officers, as well as videos being recorded by spectators.

Ordinary people are now recording the gritty and frequently adverse occasions of citizen/police interaction broadcast on Facetime Live, Instagram, and the nightly news. This article discusses the issues surrounding the impact of new technologies on police misconduct practice and
What do plaintiffs’ lawyers need to consider when moving forward with a police misconduct case, given this new reality?

Cameras everywhere

With the increased availability of video evidence, we are met with a new set of challenges and debates. Roughly one in three of the United States’ 12,000 police departments, and half of those in larger cities, have begun providing at least some of their officers with body cameras. This percentage is notably up from just a couple of years ago. The move towards police-worn body cameras has received widespread public endorsement, transcending all racial and ethnic divisions.

Astonishingly, a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center identified an extensive majority of approval among white, African American, and Latino respondents in favor of increased body camera use by the local police force patrolling their communities. It is, however, worth mentioning that this data was gathered immediately after the non-indictment of the officer implicated in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Mr. Garner was filmed as he desperately repeated, “I can’t breathe” 11 times with officers on top of him, apparently in an attempt to restrain him. 

This video quickly became a viral sensation online, symbolizing the perceived advantages of real-time recordings of incidents involving law enforcement and citizens. The discussions ignited by this video continue to underline the importance of permitting ordinary citizens to document their encounters with the police.

California Led the Way?

California took the lead in transforming common law, cementing the First Amendment rights of its citizens to document police conduct. On August 11, 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown approved “The Right to Record Act,” which officially permits all individuals to record or photograph a police officer in public spaces without fear of being prosecuted for impeding the officer’s duties or otherwise obstructing justice. This law encourages officers to uphold the law, given the risk of being filmed.

Despite this, it is well documented that police officers often intimidate citizens who try to record police actions. The proliferation of body cameras brings many legal and policy questions to the fore. For instance, should police be mandated to film every interaction, regardless of severity? Some argue that cameras must only be activated when an officer anticipates a potential confrontation. However, this ignores the fact that officers cannot accurately predict every situation that may escalate.

On or Off?

Police often talk about the need to make rapid decisions, abuse of force, and deciding whether or not to turn on their cameras would only intensify such a decision-making process. A counter-argument points out that over 95% of police-public interactions are routine and do not result in arrests or contentious behavior; therefore, retaining all this footage would be a significant financial burden due to storage costs. Should this footage be made public? If so, when and under what circumstances should police-captured videos be released? 

Should there be a standardized policy that makes all recorded footage publicly available for a specific duration, such as 60 days, or should the police exercise discretion, deciding on the release of each video on a case-by-case basis? This debate essentially boils down to the balance between the police’s justifiable concern that the premature release of video footage may impede ongoing investigations versus the public’s right to information. Concerns arise around the likelihood that the decision to release a video would be manipulated only to serve the police department’s best interest only to serve the police department’s best interest. 

The issue also includes a gray area around privacy rights, particularly for those whose lives become the focus of police recordings. Could someone rightfully refuse to have an interaction in their home or with their minor children documented? (For example, could the footage be publicly disseminated later?) Besides these policy concerns, there is a significant question of when and under what circumstances officers can review their camera footage.

Are Cops Altering the Tapes?

For instance, the LAPD allows officers to view their recordings before filing their reports on the events leading up to the arrest or use-of-force incident. I believe this policy lacks integrity and garners public mistrust. Review reviews shouldn’t precede written reports to avoid potential fabrication and ensure report consistency. 

The decision-making body, The Los Angeles Police Commission, is working on a policy to address these concerns and others surrounding this novel aspect. However, these debates don’t seem to apply when regular citizens take footage; such videos are often uploaded to social media quickly after an incident with little consideration of body cameras, and these recordings don’t often complete a full picture.

They should be perceived as another form of evidence in the pursuit of justice. The increasing presence of recorded footage changes the playing field for plaintiff lawyers dealing with civil rights cases. New thinking and fresh strategies will be necessary. I would advise lawyers taking on new cases involving the LAPD, or even smaller agencies in the Southland, to promptly request the preservation of any video recordings of their incident.

Keeping a potential claim for evidence spoilation at hand is integral – particularly in your learning that videotape evidence hasn’t been preserved. In this ever-connected world we now live in, you must closely monitor social media and surveillance cameras after taking on a new police misconduct case. The challenge is that this critical evidence could take weeks or even longer to surface after the incident initially, typically due to the time it can take for a family to engage legal counsel. Valuable videos on social media don’t always help unless the incident is high-profile and the videos become widely circulated. 

It’s not only about navigating social media sites. Due to the ubiquitous presence of surveillance cameras today, we use them for our benefit. Lawyers should employ an investigator as soon as possible to find witnesses and check the existence of surveillance footage.

Final words

Unfortunately, it’s not all positive news for practitioners in this area. Video-recorded evidence isn’t the miracle solution that the plaintiff’s lawyers wanted. To my dismay, I’ve lost cases despite video evidence working in my favor—conflicting head-on with the police officer’s narrative of the incident. Multiple studies reveal that jurors often interpret video evidence prejudicially. Jurors with a predisposition towards law enforcement believe the evidence supports police, while anti-police jurors interpret the videos from their viewpoint. A significant body of evidence implies that even video footage is prone to biased interpretations considering existing attitudes toward the police. 

This contradicts the common belief that videos provide irrefutable evidence of the actual events.
For civil rights lawyers, video evidence isn’t the sole ingredient to a successful case. It is crucial to unearth all aspects of your proof. You must select a jury that will view the evidence impartially. So what does the future look like? Both phones and body cameras on police officers are here to stay for us trial lawyers.

Tackling issues around the usage of videotape evidence is part of this new reality. Across the nation, municipalities grapple with establishing policies that use videotape evidence. Striking a balance between legitimate law enforcement investigative interests and the privacy concerns of those captured on the tapes becomes crucial. For the practicing attorney, these new technologies aren’t radically transformative, at least in the immediate future. As police abuse lawyers, we must persist in our quest. We must win over the minds and hearts of fair citizens everywhere.

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Michael Ehline

Michael Ehline is an inactive U.S. Marine and world-famous legal historian. Michael helped draft the Cruise Ship Safety Act and has won some of U.S. history’s largest motorcycle accident settlements. Together with his legal team, Michael and the Ehline Law Firm collect damages on behalf of clients. We pride ourselves on being available to answer your most pressing and difficult questions 24/7. We are proud sponsors of the Paul Ehline Memorial Motorcycle Ride and a Service Disabled Veteran Operated Business. (SDVOB.) We are ready to fight.