Body Camera Footage Plays Vital Role as Evidence

In many cases, the footage from police cameras can be the only way to prove guilt or innocence.

by Laura Lane, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind. / March 20, 2017
Some jurisdictions have limited the public's access to police body camera footage. (Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

(TNS) -- Police body cameras have become part of the uniform, a safety accessory along with the service revolver, pepper spray, riot baton and bullet-proof vest.

Video and audio footage from cameras clipped to officers’ shirts is finding its way into courtrooms, used as evidence in criminal cases.

“We believe that it is now a ‘best practice,’ as well as good public policy, for all police to be equipped with body-cam technology,” said Bob Miller, chief deputy prosecutor in Monroe County. “There is simply no better evidence of what occurs during a police-citizen encounter than video of the event.”

In October 2014, a body camera clipped to BPD Officer William Abram’s uniform recorded the sounds of gunshots from inside a dark residence where two women were being raped at gunpoint. The video shows two men escaping from a bedroom window and one turning and firing toward Abram, who shot back.

It documents just what happened and backed up the officer’s account.

It’s evidence. Strong evidence.

During a trial this month in Monroe Circuit Court in which a man was convicted of causing his 2-month-old daughter’s death, deputy prosecutor David Gohn played for jurors a video and audio recording. It came from a Bloomington police officer’s body camera that was on when the parents of the battered infant were told that despite efforts to revive her, Kenya Rose Smith-Barton had died.

“Mom, mom, mom ... oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” cried Robierre McNeil in the video. “No, no, no, my baby, my baby, my baby, my baby,” wailed the child’s mother, who was working a double shift at Burger King that Sunday a year ago when the baby was found unresponsive in a swing, suffering from several skull fractures.

The minutes-long segment was heart-wrenching.

Gohn suggested to the jury that McNeil’s grief was not as genuine as the mother’s. Jurors left to deliberate, with instructions on the law from the judge in their hands and the sounds of the anguished parents fresh in their minds.

McNeil was convicted of aggravated battery and neglect resulting in death and will be sentenced next month.

BPD Deputy Chief Joe Qualters said the department’s body-worn camera policy requires that they be activated “to record all contacts with citizens while in the performance of official duties.” He explained that the cameras are to stay activated “until the event is completed in order to ensure the integrity of the recording.”

The policy does not extend to “any location where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a restroom or locker room,” he wrote in an email response to questions.

Video from the cameras is downloaded at the end of each officer’s shift and preserved on a server. Video not related to criminal cases is generally kept for six months, he said. Video involving arrests and circumstances where criminal charges are filed is passed along to the prosecutor’s office and kept until the case is over.

What is pertinent and allowed as evidence for a trial is determined by rules of evidence and a judge’s interpretation. Miller said body-cam evidence is available to both the prosecution and the defense.

“The rules governing its admissibility are no different than any other photographic or video exhibits,” he said. “Clearly, it must be relevant to the issues before the court, and it must be properly maintained to avoid any risk of tampering.”

He said that before such evidence can be used in an attorney’s closing statement, as it was in McNeil’s trial, it must first be admitted as an exhibit through a witness, most often the officer who was wearing it. “We believe that this kind of ‘real time’ evidence is helpful to jurors in many cases,” Miller said. Sometimes, it helps determine a verdict.

©2017 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

NEW ON THE PODCAST

Analytics, Blockchain and Cybersecurity at NASCIO