ATLANTA – The use of body cameras by police has become more widespread, but there remain inconsistencies in how law enforcement agencies around the country deal with the footage, raising concerns among community activists who look to the videos to bring greater transparency to how police interact with citizens.
A new report by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn Research to be released Tuesday shows that the vast majority of the nation's largest police departments allow officers to view the footage before writing a police report or being questioned by investigators during use-of-force cases. The group believes that policy undermines police credibility and runs the risk of influencing how the officer describes what happened.
Rather than ensuring their account is accurate, the advocacy groups say, "reviewing footage — consciously or not — can distort what officers claim to remember and what they write in their reports. Reports aided by footage review are ultimately less accurate, because they no longer capture an officer's own independent recollection of events."
But law enforcement officials and some experts say it's important to have officers view the footage beforehand to ensure that police accounts of incidents are accurate. An officer's perceptions of what transpired can be skewed by natural human reactions in stressful situations that can affect what they see, hear and even smell, and the video is invaluable in being a reality check. They also worry that body cameras will often capture things not seen by an officer — and vice versa, that an officer may see things with their peripheral vision that isn't picked up by the camera.
"They want to be as accurate as they can. This specter that every time an officer looks at the video they're going to lie and adapt their statement just is infuriating because we want the officers to write the most accurate report they can," said Lance LoRusso, a former police officer who is now a lawyer in metro Atlanta and represents officers in court. "This idea that the officer should never see the video in an officer-involved shooting is just nonsensical."
The vast majority of departments allow officers to view the footage before either writing a report or being interviewed by investigators. A small handful of agencies have officers write their reports first, then view the video and offer them the opportunity to submit a revised report.
Officers in Fresno, California, have been using body-worn cameras for about three years. About 90 percent of the patrol officers have them — and all of them will have them by early next year, Chief Jerry Dyer said. There was some internal debate about whether to allow an officer to view the footage beforehand and ultimately the department came down on the side of making it accessible, he said.
"We started with the foundational premise that the purpose of body-worn cameras is to gather evidence, whether that evidence is used in a criminal, civil or administrative investigation. It is utilized to establish an accurate account of what occurred," Dyer told The Associated Press. "And so it was our belief and my belief if reviewing the video helps ensure the officer's recall of an incident is accurate, then why wouldn't we?"
How police respond and deal with members of the community — particularly minorities — has been under greater scrutiny the past few years than ever before. Videos of those interactions — whether it's from a body camera, a police dashcam or a citizen with an iPhone — have raised questions about use of force and shootings.
In North Charleston, South Carolina, Officer Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott after the man fled a traffic stop, claimed he did so after Scott tried to grab his Taser. But a citizen's iPhone video captured it a different way: Slager fired eight rounds from his handgun while Scott was running away and was about 15 feet away. In that case, police had only dashcam video, which showed only the traffic stop but not the actual shooting that took place out of view.
In Ohio, a University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing was allowed to view body camera footage before submitting his report on the shooting of motorist Samuel DuBose, whom he had claimed started to drag him down the street with his arm still inside the vehicle. That scenario was not backed up with what is seen on the officer's body camera video and some have questioned why Tensing was allowed to view the footage beforehand.
Upturn and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights first began examining the issue in 2015. Since then, very little has changed among police agencies and their body camera policies.
"Because of what's happening around the country, officers seem to have this special advantage now where they get to view footage before writing reports or giving statements to investigators," said Harlan Yu, founder of Upturn, which has been studying the issue for several years. "That's another advantage that other eyewitnesses don't have and that gives officers an undue level of credibility that other eyewitnesses don't have."