Much of the resistance to outfitting police officers with body-worn cameras seems to have receded. There is a growing consensus among law enforcement, civil rights organizations and the public that the cameras will provide a net benefit for both officers and members of the public.
But there is another benefit that is being overlooked: the impact on the criminal courts.
Many criminal cases come down to a credibility contest between the police and the accused. Police officers often serve as the lone witness in charges such as shoplifting, assault on a police officer, and resisting or evading arrest, and these cases unsurprisingly rise and fall with the testimony of the officer.
An officer may also be the only person who identifies the suspect who ran from a stolen car or the sole source of information that a defendant was seen in possession of illegal drugs or weapons. In my 11 years as a public defender, I saw these types of cases over and over. The less serious cases typically lack forensic corroboration, such as fingerprints or DNA evidence, and they go to trial far more often than one might think.
Some believe – either consciously or subconsciously – that an officer’s account is definitive. If the police say something happened, it happened. Why would they lie? But others have little or no trouble believing that there are times when officers exaggerate testimony and even fabricate evidence. Cases that rely heavily on officer testimony go to trial in courthouses all over the country, at significant financial cost.
And that’s where body cameras come into play. If body cameras become standard across the nation, some of these cases will be dismissed or go uncharged when video fails to support the officer’s account. Others will end with a quick guilty plea because the footage will constitute overwhelming evidence. Either way, taxpayers will be spared the substantial cost of going to trial.
Many of these cases require court-appointed defense counsel. Unless it is a jurisdiction with a public defender’s office, these lawyers are paid more for the work that comes with a trial.
In any jurisdiction, officers are paid – often at an overtime rate – when they serve as witnesses, and many of them tend to be present (and on the clock) throughout the trial. Court reporters must be paid to document every aspect of the proceedings. Although jurors aren’t paid much, they too receive compensation for their service. Translators must be a part of any trial where anyone involved in the case is less than a fluent English speaker.
It’s true that body cameras won’t provide definitive evidence in every case, but if these cameras are used more consistently, the parties will be better informed in a significant number of them. Recordings may well become so common that the mere failure of officers to record an incident will change the way that jurors, and therefore prosecutors, assess cases.
The end result is that the additional evidence (or potential therefor) will cause these kinds of cases to settle at a far higher rate. Other cases would be resolved prior to trial due to suppression issues where footage shows that stops or searches were not justified.
The criminal justice system provides its own example of how recordings can change the landscape of litigation: Many jurisdictions require that interrogations be recorded. There is little debating what a defendant actually said in the context of a reported “confession” – all involved can hear every word.
Defense attorneys have little or no ammunition to attack detectives who properly administer Miranda warnings and conduct their interrogations “by the book,” while prosecutors have little ability to defend the actions of officers who are captured on video behaving less scrupulously. As a result of the requirement, the statements by defendants in these recorded interrogations require less litigation.
The more widespread use of police body cameras will mean that useful footage will be generated, and the system will benefit. In a substantial number of cases, video footage will resolve the age-old credibility contest, eliminating the need for a jury to do so.
Chris Roberts is the director of the Criminal Defense Clinic in the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin.
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