Back in December of 2014, when the hue and cry for police body cameras was new, I wrote The Body Camera Delusion, which urged caution in rushing headlong into the latest “police reform” panacea. It raised many of the problems we have since seen in the body camera panic, and revisting that article may be informative. So too is this Newsweek—the news source worth a dollar—report:
The number of U.S. police departments outfitting their officers with body cameras increases each year, but the cameras can pose a threat to civil rights if the departments fail to set rules that govern when officers review footage from their cameras, according to a new report.
The vast majority of the nation’s biggest police departments allow officers to watch footage from body cameras whenever they want, including before they write their incident reports or make statements, said the report, which was released Tuesday by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
‘Unrestricted footage review places civil rights at risk and undermines the goals of transparency and accountability,’ said Vanita Gupta, former head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and current head of the Leadership Conference, in the report’s introduction.
Because an officer’s memory of an event may be altered by watching body camera footage, doing so will likely alter what officers write in their reports. That, in turn, can make it more difficult for investigators or courts to assess whether the officer’s actions were reasonable based on what he or she perceived at the time of the incident, states the report, ‘The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence.
This was not an issue I raised in my original article. Newsweek’s implication is simple, and disturbing. Professional police officers use everything at their disposal to be certain their reports are accurate. During my police days, officers would often carry small audio recorders and listen to those tapes when writing reports, not to lie, but to ensure they accurately remembered conversations and could accurately record exactly what was said and in what order. I always carried a notebook and wrote notes about what people said and did whenever possible. I reread them to refresh my memory when writing reports and threw them away thereafter. It would have been ridiculously time-consuming to try to keep and catalog them all, and I wrote in a personal shorthand scrawl, recording only the small details I might later forget, that would have been incomprehensible to anyone else. Newsweek reports on social justice thugs that see that kind of accuracy as racist and inherently deceptive.
Vanita Gupta is as hard and radical a leftist as exists in America today. She was a true Obamite, dedicated to the proposition that white people cannot be discriminated against, and ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law in favor of social justice. She was among the Obamites who did terrible damage to America. People truly concerned with individual rights should automatically be suspicious of anything she has to say.
The Leadership Conference report advises that police departments institute a ‘clean reporting’ policy, under which officers write an initial incident report before reviewing any footage. Only afterward would they watch the footage and write a second, supplementary report.
‘We make the case that in the interests of consistency, fairness, transparency and accountability, clean reporting should be adopted as a standard practice for all police departments with body-worn camera programs,’ writes Gupta in the introduction.
The report adds:
Unrestricted footage review creates an illusion of accuracy because it produces a false impression about how much officers actually remember about an incident. It makes officers’ memories appear to be more accurate, and thus more credible, than the memories of other eyewitnesses — which can distort how an independent factfinder, like a judge or a jury, might understand how an incident truly unfolded. In the worst cases, because of the inherent limits of body-worn cameras, unrestricted footage review allows officers to square their version of events to the footage, and potentially create false beliefs about what actually happened.
You would think that those championing civil rights would want to simply see the facts of the case, but the report seems to be more concerned that a police officer might be more credible than some eyewitness.
Yet unrestricted footage review gives officers the opportunity to augment their initial incident reports with information that would not otherwise be available to them from their own memory. This makes officers’ reports artificially consistent with video footage and appear to be unnaturally comprehensive and credible, particularly compared to reports of other witnesses to events.
Now we get to Gupta’s real agenda. It’s not accuracy in memory and testimony, it’s ensuring some kinds of testimony, from some kinds or witnesses, is given much greater credibility than that of the police, regardless of the evidence. It proceeds from the view that all police officers are evil racists, salivating at the thought of denying the righteous their civil rights. This is, of course, what one expects from advocates of social justice: utter illogic and advocacy for special treatment and rights for their favored, eternally aggrieved, victim groups.
Memories are notoriously faulty, and every police officer knows eyewitness accounts can be accurate, wildly inaccurate or something in between. Five people viewing the same incident will commonly have enormously disparate stories to tell. To whatever degree body cameras or other recording devices are helpful, it is in helping to stimulate one’s memory.
Police officers, through training and daily experience, tend to be better observers than others. They are presumed to be unbiased observers, lacking motivation to color their testimony. We all know that not to be universally true, but it is true more often than not.
A defense attorney once accused me of writing so well my prose overcame all evidence and convicted his drunk driving client. Police officers could only wish competent writing was sufficient to override evidence. I could make millions teaching the technique. Alas, the drunk driver was convicted because I accurately remembered what he did, and used notes to augment those small portions of my memory that didn’t perfectly record the incident. How would that outcome, or my testimony have changed, if the encounter had been recorded on video rather than in my small notebook? Not a whit.
Forcing officers to write two reports not only wastes time and money, it doesn’t accomplish the goal Gupta pretends to champion. Officers involved in fast-moving, violent incidents have macro, not micro concerns. They need to get violent offenders under control fast, and tiny details that defense attorneys might seize upon later in an attempt to portray officers as dishonest, or to brand their memories faulty, of necessity take a backseat. By viewing the footage—usually as they write—officers can ensure accuracy. Since the footage is keep and catalogued, no harm is done to the truth. The footage an officer used to ensure accuracy can be compared with the officer’s report if necessary. The process ensures greater accuracy—within the limitations of body cameras, and they are substantial—not police subterfuge. It saves time for prosecutors and the courts, though it does tend to make a defense attorney’s job harder, because it’s the truth, and they sometimes tend to want to avoid or obscure that.
Which process best represents the “transparency and accountability” about which Gupta cares so much? If an officer made mistakes, the video will be there to reveal it, regardless of his report.
Gupta also makes faulty assumptions about the nature of body camera footage, which faults I pointed out in the linked 2014 article. They do not produce Hollywood quality scenes, professionally edited, shot from multiple angles with perfect lighting and boom microphones hanging overhead out of the camera’s frame. Their frames are small, image quality is usually mediocre, the sound is frequently mediocre and often entirely obscured, and one is often left with snatches of the action, mere glimpses of what happened. Human beings make terrible stable camera platforms, particularly when they’re wrestling with a drunk and/or violent offender in the mud, blood, beer and vomit that is their usual habitat.
I don’t suggest body cameras are useless. There have been many instances where they saved officer’s careers by disproving false accusations against them. However, they’re not perfect truth-telling machines, and Gupta and those like her are not at all interested in the truth. They want to tilt the playing field away from the rule of law toward social justice, a field on which they are used to playing, and winning.
As long as body camera footage is not altered, or somehow disappears, the most efficient and accurate way to use it is for officers to review it before or while they’re writing their reports. To do otherwise does not improve the accuracy of those reports, and it is a very inefficient use of public resources. It certainly doesn’t aid the administration of justice or uphold anyone’s rights. As I suggested earlier, Gupta is not at all interested in the truth, only a certain kind of truth for certain kinds of people, for the glory of progressive ideology.