Police "Body Cameras" Can't Help If They Are Turned Off.
In the wake of the situation in Ferguson, MO, President Obama has pledged $75 Million in federal funds, specifically to equip police officers with digital "body cameras". The idea, of course, is that these cameras will objectively capture encounters between police and citizens. This will take the "he said, she said" element out of the equation. It will eliminate the human elements that have led to infamously unreliable eyewitness accounts. It will protect the police from false accusations. It will keep police "more honest". All of this may be true, so long as the cameras are actually working and on, and if the footage is properly preserved.
I am a criminal defense and car accident attorney. As such, I have over the last 15 years routinely requested and examined police audio-video evidence. Advances in digital technology have led to nearly every police vehicle, and nearly every police interview room, being equipped with audio-video equipment. I want the audio-video record for obvious reasons: It is often the best evidence of what actually happened, and of what actually was said. It can be the best or worst evidence for a client; but it is the truth that matters most.
In the case of most police squad cars, the digital equipment is designed to be perpetually on. The system is designed to preserve the audio and/or video record anytime an officer activates emergency lights or sirens, or manually starts recording. In either case, the equipment will also capture a period of time before the equipment was activated. Importantly, officers are equipped with wireless microphones on their persons, which often allows them to record witness statements.
Most law enforcement agencies have in place orders dictating how the audio and/or video equipment is to be used and maintained. These orders usually require officers to inspect the equipment at the outset of their shift, to ensure it is properly functioning. These orders also require that officers actually use the equipment to preserve evidence, allowing few exceptions.
Despite these orders, there is, in my opinion, a shocking percentage of cases where video and/or audio-recorded squad evidence is not being properly captured and/or is not being properly preserved. I have seen many cases of field sobriety tests done out of view of the camera. I have seen many cases where officers' microphones are turned off; selectively turned off and on; or not functioning at all, while reportedly incriminating statements are being made. I have seen multiple cases of audio-video not being recorded because the digital storage device was "full" or the equipment was down. I have seen many cases where there is no video, no audio, and no explanation at all. This very morning, I received a letter from the Town of Campbell Police Department, in response to my request, saying only, "[D]ue to computer issues we are unable to retrieve any audio/video recordings of this incident."
I don't like to be critical of the police; but it is part of my job description. I am also a citizen, and I rely on the police, just like everyone else. Police are human. They also have tough jobs. Mistakes will happen. That having been said, if it is true that "the conqueror gets to write history", then this technology must not only be available to the police, it must be properly used by them. We cannot tolerate the selective or sloppy use of police cameras.
Chris Dyer, Attorney and Counselor at Law, Onalaska, WI.