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.