Prosecutors Benefiting Most From Police Body Cameras

from the not-the-sort-of-accountability-we'd-envisioned dept

Touted as police accountability tools, body cameras haven’t lived up to that reputation. Camera roll outs have had mixed results. In some places, departments have experienced declines in complaints. In others, the data shows nothing conclusive — except, perhaps, that the cameras can be manipulated as easily as dashcams and audio recorders.

The one place cameras are definitely paying off, it seems, is in courtrooms. And it has nothing to do with civil lawsuits and everything to do with locking people up. If there’s an entity benefiting directly from the explosion in body camera use, it’s the nation’s prosecutors. The stated fears about body-worn cameras being used by department brass to play “gotcha” with the rank-and-file haven’t materialized. More often than not, footage is being used to put people behind bars.

A George Mason University survey [PDF] of prosecutors shows a majority of them have used body-worn camera footage as evidence.

Most state prosecutors’ offices (almost two-thirds) are already working with BWC evidence. Of these offices, a full 42.1% have used the evidence for longer than one year. Yet, a significant number (almost one-fifth of those using BWC evidence) are still very new to working with it (one month or less).

Nearly all prosecutors’ offices in jurisdictions with BWCs (92.6%) have used BWC evidence to prosecute private citizens. In comparison, 8.3% of offices located in jurisdictions with BWCs indicated that they have used BWC evidence to prosecute a police officer. It should be noted, however, that many more total citizens than police are prosecuted each year, so these percentages are not directly comparable.

Prosecutors also found camera footage to be far more useful to them than their defensive counterparts.

Very high numbers of respondents (79.5%) indicated that prosecutors in their offices support BWC use. Additionally, large majorities believed that BWC evidence will help the prosecution more than it will assist the defense (62.7%) and that BWCs would improve prosecutors’ overall ability to prosecute cases (65.8%). Fewer than 10% of lead prosecutors disagreed with these statements. Taken together, these results suggest that lead prosecutors view BWC evidence as a powerful prosecutorial tool.


A majority believed that BWC evidence would increase both rates of conviction (58.3% agreement) and the frequency/likelihood of plea bargains (62.3% agreement).

Considering the advantages camera footage has given prosecutors, it’s surprising there are still complaints about the tech. Most seem to indicate prosecutors aren’t happy the tool that’s helping them secure more convictions might also require them to do a more work. Beyond concerns about logistics (storage, retrieval), prosecutors cite the time needed to review footage as a potential downside. This complaint, however, goes right to the heart of the issue — something that needs to be addressed by law enforcement agencies.

66.9% of respondents feared that jurors might come to expect BWC evidence and that a lack of footage might lead jurors to question an account given by an officer or witness. Indeed, almost half of the sample (44%) agreed the BWC evidence would produce minor discrepancies between officer testimony and the videos. Additionally, 48.7% worried about the potential for BWCs to produce videos that do not fully or objectively capture events in a case.

When cameras are deployed and policies are clear on when they should be activated, it should indeed damage the prosecution’s case if footage isn’t recorded by officers. Since few departments are willing to hold officers accountable for selectively recording incidents — and since courts have yet to make broad determinations about missing footage — it’s up to the public (jurors) to greet officers’ assertions about unrecorded incidents as more dubious than those where footage exists.

There’s another thing that surveys of law enforcement officers and officials has uncovered. Attempts by officials to calm officers concerned about body cam “gotchas” often contain assertions the recordings will be used to train officers and correct observed issues, rather than used to run them out of a job. But this assertion is mostly false. As former police officer Greg Prickett pointed out at Fault Lines, there’s simply too much footage and too few hours in the day.

In 2013, “Mitch” Brailsford was a police recruit in Mesa, Arizona, and was one of thirteen officers being equipped with an Axon body camera. He was one of the first officers so equipped and told the media at the time that it would help him be a better police officer by letting him review his actions and correct his mistakes.

That is BS, although I have no doubt that Mitch believes it. It is common for rookies to believe this, but in practice, video is very rarely reviewed by patrol officers or their supervisors. There just isn’t time to do so.

Prickett’s assertion is borne out by more George Mason University research [PDF].

[T]he largest effect of the implementation of BWCs was on accountability, which had increased in scope to cover a range of aspects of policing, including training, reporting, discretion, and police-citizen interactions. At the same time, the intensity with which officers’ experienced accountability had not significantly increased as BWC footage was not systematically used to monitor, review, and/or evaluate police officer conduct and quality of performance.

This continues to be true, even though this is one of the reasons given by agencies for the deployment of cameras.

BWCs were implemented primarily for training purposes and to protect patrol officers against groundless complaints rather than as a mechanism for identifying officer misconduct, for failing to comply with departmental policies, and for poor street-level performance. Although Users initially feared that BWCs were going to be used to get them into trouble for minor instances of misconduct or rule violations, their frames changed over time as they realized that BWCs were not going to be used by Managers as a “gotcha” mechanism.

When footage is reviewed, it usually exonerates officers. Day-to-day improvements in officer behavior just aren’t happening because no department has the time to review hours of footage in search of training opportunities. Given this lack of oversight, it’s hardly a surprise some research has shown almost no improvement in officer behavior following a body camera roll out.

What has been sold to the public as a new era of transparency and accountability has instead become just another closed shop run by law enforcement and prosecutors. The main beneficiaries of millions of hours of footage are police officers. Footage that helps secure convictions makes its way to prosecutors immediately. Footage showing possible misconduct or exonerating evidence remains in law enforcement agencies’ complete control until forced to relinquish it. While there have been positive developments here and there, the best accountability tool still seems to be cameras, but mostly those wielded by citizens.

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Comments on “Prosecutors Benefiting Most From Police Body Cameras”

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Uriel-238 (profile) says:

To what degree is footage suppression a factor?

My understanding is that the precinct still controls what happens to the footage, and if it shows poor conduct of an officer (say planting evidence) then the precinct can choose to not release it to the public.

If that’s the case, then it would make sense that body cameras affect trials against suspects rather than trials against officers. The officer’s own footage isn’t available to be used against him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: To what degree is footage suppression a factor?

It also means that most victims of police misconduct won’t even know if the evidence even exists in order to file a case against the department in the first place.

I think the only fair approach is to encrypt the video at the camera and put access to decryption keys in the hands of a 3rd party like a judge. Anyone other than the police who reasonably believes they were recorded can get access to the video with a simple court order, anyone else needs a full warrant. That way the police have equal access to the video as anyone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: To what degree is footage suppression a factor?

Not what I was after.

The point is … existence of said video has to be disclosed at discovery or whatever they call it. Withholding evidence that could exonerate the defendant is a crime, or at least it used to be. Problem is, how is the defense even aware of said evidence when the prosecutor hides same?

Not sure what the penalty is for prosecutorial misconduct, it is probably not used very often. What happens when children are put in charge of the cookie jar?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 The Department of Justice does not regard its own actions as criminal.

We’ve seen already that the police are allowed, even encouraged, to lie in court when it helps secure a conviction. When their lies are contradicted by video, those lies may be walked back, but no perjury charges are ever levied against the officer, and he (or she) is never reviewed for even misconduct.

And if the Department of Justice so frequently gets away with perjury, why should we expect that they might not get away with withholding evidence from the defense? Under what circumstances can we expect them to play fair at all?

We can’t.

The system has already proven to administer law unequally. Prosecutorial Discretion has been discussed here on TD and by Popehat as common practice in the courts. The problem is that although these are all symptoms of corruption, there is no tribunal with the authority to consider them. Our courts rule based on the power of force, and divine right. (Or if you prefer, jungle law.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 The Department of Justice does not regard its own actions as criminal.

Judicial System has already been effectively overthrown.

You can’t get a fair or speedy trial and any fully informed juror that appears will be excused from duty leaving you with ignorant people too stupid to get out of jury duty and pissed off at the inconvenience of being there.

OldMugwump (profile) says:

Not all bad

I read this as partially good news.

What we want is (1) the guilty (of real crimes) to be convicted, (2) the innocent to be exonerated, and (3) the police to be invented to behave properly.

I think we’re already getting 1 and 3. We have to work on 2.

If the cameras are helping take more real criminals off the streets, that’s a good thing.

If the cameras are not showing police misconduct, that’s probably partly because the awareness of the camera means there’s less of it. Another win.

And, at least some of the time, innocents are being exonerated (but only after putting in way too much effort getting access to the video).

Still, something is better than nothing.

Now we need rules about access to the video – at a minimum, anyone arrested or accused should have an automatic right to get the video.

As they say on the Internet, “video or it didn’t happen”.

Anonymous Coward says:

They got one thing wrong. The cameras are very helpful to the defense.
When a client comes to my office swearing up and down that the cop is lying, he was not drunk at all, I put on the video. If he is right, and the video shows him sober, my job is easy. If the video shows him drunk and belligerent, my job becomes easier. Instead of wasting time with a trial, my guy apologizes to the cop, and we do a plea.

Anonymous Coward says:

“66.9% of respondents feared that jurors might come to expect BWC evidence and that a lack of footage might lead jurors to question an account given by an officer or witness.”

This seems like a good thing. It seems the bar for reasonable doubt is often far too high. If this lowers it a bit, and less innocent people are jailed, that’s good.

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