Body Cams on Cops- A Defense Attorney's Perspective
Denver Police Chief Robert White has requested 800 body cams for his police force. This request comes in an effort to make his agency more transparent in the wake of several documented cases of excessive force complaints that have dogged both the Denver Police Department and Denver Sheriff’s Department in recent years. The Michael Brown case in Ferguson, MO, as well as the choke hold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, has not helped the boys in blue with their public image. Even President Obama has requested funding for body cams for cops nationwide. So, will they actually help?
Many cops are all for body cameras. They serve two purposes: 1) they can document evidence, and 2) they can protect officers from bogus harassment complaints. Regarding the first point, judges, and juries would no longer be required to rely solely on the sworn testimony of the police officer, which may (surprise surprise) differ from the testimony of the defendant or other witnesses. The cop can say, “Don’t believe me? Check out the body cam evidence.” Prosecutors love body cameras too. In their roles as the presenters of the evidence, they can use the cameras to take the jury to the scene of the crime with the video- they love visual aids.
Even criminal defense attorneys like me like body cameras. If a cop writes something in his report, or testifies to something that is fabricated, exaggerated, or flat out wrong, I can use this video evidence against him if it shows something different. Conversely, if the camera depicts damning evidence that shows my client’s clear culpability, I can present it to the client to show him why the plea deal offered by the prosecutor is worth taking. In short, the truth comes out with body cams, which is a good thing.
As to the second purpose for body cams, police officers are protecting themselves from an increasingly suspicious public from frivolous claims against them. The police can also use the videos to show that they treated a subject with respect and did not violate the person’s constitutional rights in the face of claims made by someone like, well, me. Many civilians are also using smart phones to document their encounters with the police such as in this entertaining video, so why shouldn’t police officers do the same?
There are some arguments to be made against body cams. An obvious one is that they are controlled by the police officer, and stored by the department he works for, as opposed to an independent monitor. An officer can switch on or off the camera whenever he wants, which may be done purposefully to conceal exculpatory evidence by a suspect, or inappropriate behavior on the part of the police officer. These videos can also be edited and tampered with by the officer or his department.
Also, the mere existence of a video depicting police brutality does not necessarily mean that the police will be held accountable. The Rodney King incident comes to mind: four Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of assault even though there was a videotape that showed them beating unarmed Rodney King over 50 times with police batons. More recently, New Yorker Eric Garner was killed pursuant to a choke hold administered by a New York City police officer. A grand jury decided that no charges should be filed against the police officer, even though the entire incident was caught on video.
While there may be some speculation as to how much good they will do, I for one believe they are a positive thing. If a police officer knows they are being videotaped, they will behave better. If suspects are videotaped, for better or for worse, the truth is more likely to emerge as to their guilt or innocence. Justice may not prevail in every case, but it isn’t the camera’s fault if it doesn’t. Transparency in the world of criminal law is a noble goal, so let’s keep those cameras rolling.