Posted by Steve Hirjak
As more pressure is put on police departments to equip every officer with video cameras, one of the big questions of the day is whether or not to allow officers to review video prior to making a statement. Positions vary wildly and are complicated by the reality of politics.
NY Police Commissioner Bill Bratton sums up the fear of video succinctly when he says, “I am not intending to use the cameras to play a game of gotcha with the cops.” The harsh reality is that there are critics that want video to try to pick apart cases, regardless of truth and human error. There is a legitimate fear here. We have all witnessed cases where the Media has given vast amounts of air time to critics that split hairs on phrases such as "reached for" versus "grabbed," grasping for anything that can make the police look like liars.
The flip side of this equation is that some officers do lie or, in some cases, distort the truth to fit the video. I spoke with an investigator who told me about a case in which an officer appeared to alter his story to match what the video (incorrectly) portrayed. He was later jammed up by his testimony when the scene processing revealed that the video distorted the event and it was later revealed that he had given a story that didn't match the evidence at all. Whether his intent was evil or not, only he knows. The fact of the matter is, he is now condemned.
I personally worked a case where an officer watched his video prior to a statement and omitted part of his story. After the case was closed, we asked him why. He said that the video made him doubt his recollection of the event and was worried that he would look like a liar because the video didn't capture the information he omitted. The information was supportive of his actions and, fortunately for him, there were about a dozen civilian witnesses that filled in that part of the story.
PERF issued a set of recommendations (see page 57, recommendation 20) in which they lay out arguments requiring that officers be allowed to review their video prior to giving any formal statement. They have some solid points and echo some of my sentiment. Critics argue that it allows officers to come up with a good lie. I am unsure how an officer that shot someone in an unjustified manner could make up a good story based on watching a video of a bad shooting.
On the other side of the argument, the ACLU gives a list of reasons that they are against allowing viewing. Personally, I disagree with many of them. The common theme is their number one reason: You don't let suspects see evidence first. Most agencies I've spoken with don't allow officers to watch video until they are relatively sure that the evidence doesn't suggest a crime by the officers to begin with. After that, where a citizen is not required to give a statement, an officer is and there are thousands of people out there watching, hoping to find an inconsistency somewhere. This is the reality of modern policing. I do, however, agree with some of their most important points:
As I mentioned above, I'm aware of officers hurting their own cases (and consequently, their Department's and the overall public trust of policing) even when they had no ill intent. An officer cannot un-watch a video and we all know that watching a video changes your memory and we should all be after the truth, not just what's safe. The ACLU is 100% correct on this point.
The Marshall Project, a conservative think tank, makes an eloquent argument against reviewing video prior to providing a statement. I highly recommend that you read it. Basically: Graham v. Connor judges use of force based on a reasonable officer in the same scenario. Why regurgitate what was seen on video when the officer's independent perception is the only reason to get an interview. If we wanted what was on the video, we'd simply watch the video.
I've spoken with a prominent expert on this topic and I was told this: Truthful testimony isn't destroyed by controversial video, but contaminated testimony is frequently destroyed by evidence.
Come to our annual Force Investigation Conference and hear Grant Fredericks talk about video, Dr. Ron Fisher talk about memory and interviewing, and learn from the experiences of those of us in the field that investigate these officers for a living. Tell me your thoughts about viewing video in the comments below. I'd love to hear your thoughts!