At times, video evidence is fantastic. Yet other moments it can interfere with the truth due to several variables. Officers need to be equipped to handle controversy that is possible when video evidence is part of the equation.
Video evidence is not a panacea
The NFL and other major sports have dozens of cameras at their disposal to be used for instant reply. Yet how many times have we seen the video evidence is inconclusive—even with all the camera angles. But there is one angle that is not captured by instant reply; that of the official making the call. Therefore, when video evidence is inconclusive, the call on the field stands.
If you’re involved in a shooting, remember that you represent the “call on the field.”
Body cams are in vogue due to “controversial” officer-involved shootings (OIS). During the OIS investigation, every conceivable video will be sought—not only the body cam if one is available, but security cameras, iPhone images, etc. While other sources of footage provide useful information, NONE provide the perspective faced by the officer with the exception of his or her personal body cam. Be mindful that other images might not accurately represent what the officer witnessed, even if it appears unequivocal.
For instance, a security camera mounted on the corner of a building has a completely different perspective than an officer facing a combatant at ground level.
A video feed from a news helicopter orbiting at 2,000 feet might appear in slow motion compared to action on the ground.
The greater the differences in position, direction, elevation, lighting, recording speed, angles and so on, the greater the discrepancies. The officer’s testimony may appear to conflict with these recordings when in fact he or she is being truthful.
Michael Stone has been defending cops in court for 35 of 49 years he’s spent in the business. (He was also a police officer for the balance of that time.) He gained notoriety during the Rodney King trials, and has been a legal stalwart since. Mr. Stone refers to video as “compelling evidence because the juror embraces it.” But compelling does not equate to conclusive. At times it validates the officers statement, but it can also contradict it as well.
It is in those moments that police need to get ahead of the game and discover reasonable explanations why the “compelling evidence” differs from the officer’s perspective.
Mr. Stone argues that officers should never be compelled to make any statements without full opportunity to study all available video recordings. “Otherwise they may blindly walk into a complicated trap for the unwary,” he said in a recent article in PORAC magazine. “Their honest perceptions and memory of the event are their reality, regardless of what the video shows or does not show.”
Address discrepancies up front
Video evidence will often contain unexplainable discrepancies. Deal with these issues up front. Think about it, two witnesses will not give the exact account to the same event. Do not expect video evidence to provide the same details offered by the officer. Simply explain why the video evidence differs from the officer’s perspective if possible.
Educate people on Graham v. Conner
This landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1989 is fundamental to every OIS investigation. Yet it is widely misunderstood by the public. Furthermore, most plaintiff attorneys disregard it. They often act as if the case does not exist while making a public denouncement of the police actions in question.
Not only is the officer’s state of mind paramount, but also did he or she act in accordance with the “reasonable officer on the scene, in the same or similar circumstances.” Based upon that standard, camera angles that do not reflect the perspective of the officer involved in the shooting may or may not have relevance. Or at least the significance should arguably be diminished.
Be mindful that you cannot “stand in the shoes” of the officer involved in the incident from a different or elevated camera angle.
Graham v. Conner prohibits 20/20 hindsight. News reports incorrectly apply this standard frequently. It was in bold print when they reported Michael Brown’s age following the fatal encounter with Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. The reports emphasized the “18-year-old boy,” as if Wilson sought after this “vulnerable youth.” The implications were caustic and bombastic. As we all learned in the months that followed, Brown’s age was far less relevant than his size and demeanor.
Copicide—suicide by police—is a phenomenon. But police that shoot an armed suicidal suspect may be completely unaware of his intentions until after the fact. Yet the neighbors and family say, “He wouldn’t hurt anyone.” Well, that is 20/20 hindsight for the officer involved in the shooting.
Reviewers of fact
People that review the OIS findings are required to follow the Graham v. Connor analysis. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It doesn’t matter if those sitting in judgment are chiefs, sheriffs, judges, juries, or civil service commissions.
Since “reasonableness” under the Fourth Amendment cannot be precisely defined, the proper application needs to be applied to the facts and circumstances of each case. There are no two cases alike!
Advocate for yourself
Finally, let’s be honest. There are superior police officers, mediocre cops, and then lumps. The same can be true for the attorney chosen to represent your interest. Hopefully, you will get one from the “superior class.” But if not, it is your rear-end that is going to get blistered if your case is not presented well. Do your homework. Whether you are the shooting officer, investigator, chief, or sheriff, you have an ethical obligation to defend the actions professionally, yet assertively. Do not drop the ball, since video evidence can be compelling, even when it’s inconclusive.