• Fernandina Beach Police Officer Michael Mulkearns with a body-worn camera. Photo by Julia Roberts/News-Leader

Police body cameras: Going to the video may not be the whole story

Body-worn cameras have evolved from cumbersome, expensive equipment that produced a grainy black-and-white image that was often difficult to make out to lightweight, high-definition cameras that can automatically begin recording in sync with other cameras and provide effortless downloads.

However, the technology is still not perfect, and how it is used in the courtroom is often a case of perspective, experience and common sense.

The Fernandina Beach Police Department has been using BWC for more than a year, according to Chief James Hurley.

Hurley and Deputy Chief Mark Foxworth sat down with the News-Leader to discuss the technology and the issues of BWCs prior to a presentation in Jacksonville this week by Seth Stoughton, an expert in body-worn cameras.

Hurley said the FBPD has had in-car cameras since the 1990s, and began using BWCs in January 2017.

Police cruisers across the country began using cameras as early as the 1980s, with a cumbersome and expensive setup that involved a VCR in the car. Since then, technology has improved, and now 75 percent of all police agencies use cameras, both in-car and BWCs.

Hurley said his officers “enthusiastically said yes” when they were told they would wear a BWC.

“A huge percentage of times, the officer’s account of something is more accurate,” Hurley explained.

“There is so much volatile rhetoric out there, that officers welcome this,” Foxworthy added. 

The equipment used by FBFD is state-of-the-art, including storage of data from the cameras. When an officer wearing a camera comes into the station, the footage from the camera is automatically uploaded to the department’s dedicated server, Hurley said. The footage is stored for 30 days, unless it is specifically tagged by the department. The evidence library is searchable, with layers of filters that include officers, cars, dates and locations.

The cost of each camera to the FBPD, with required software, storage, server and ability to link to the system, is $5,800.

In-car cameras are triggered when an officer turns on his flashing lights, or he can manually switch it on. When a BWC is activated, it syncs with four other cameras in the car, giving an account of an incident from several angles.

The cameras record the entire time they are turned on, and, if something triggers an officer to turn a camera on, the equipment has the ability to go back and retrieve footage from the last two minutes. So, for example, if an officer sees a suspect running from a certain area and
activates his camera, the system can go back two minutes to see what the suspect may have been running from.

Footage from BWCs is subject to open records requests, Hurley said. If a member of the press or other person requests to view footage obtained by BWCs or by an in-car camera, the department has to furnish that footage.

“We do that as soon as we can, if we get a request,” Hurley said.

There is a statute that exempts police officers from informing people they are being
recorded. Officers can record anywhere they are present. 

If any footage contains sensitive information or images such as dead bodies, nudity or the treatment area of a medical facility, it may be redacted.

Hurley explained that his department has 26 cameras, 18 used by patrol officers, four by school resource officers and four available for use by detectives.

The BWCs sync with four in-car cameras, offering several camera angles including a panoramic view. 

But Seth Stoughton warned Monday that video “is not a particularly special form of evidence. What worries me is the tendency to view BWC footage, or video evidence generally, as a solution to answering questions about uncertainty and ambiguity in police interactions. It will not do that – except in the cases where it does.”

Stoughton is an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, where he is affiliated with the Rule of Law Collaborative. His presentation addressed the technical as well as practical issues involved with the equipment in light of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office adoption – on a limited basis – of its use on Nov. 2.

Different camera angles are crucial, Stoughton said. As part of his presentation, he showed video footage of the same incident, taken from a BWC, an in-car camera and a camera used from a different angle. The results show that some interactions cannot be accurately portrayed by any one of these cameras.

For example, one video showed footage taken from the BWC of a police officer approaching a vehicle. The driver of the car opens his door, and officers tell him not to get out of the car. The driver does exit the vehicle, but the footage is jerky, and the viewer is unable to see anything except blurred images of the driver opening the door, followed by officers shooting the driver as he flees. It appears that the officers are shooting the man for simply getting out of his car.

However, footage taken from another camera shows the man pulling a gun from the car, and shooting two officers before police returned fire and pursued him.

Another piece of video footage showed the view from an officer’s BWC as he appeared to tackle a fleeing suspect and was backed up by fellow officers, subduing the man.

However, footage from a surveillance camera showed the man stopped before he was caught by the officer, and in fact laid face down on the ground, surrendering to police with his hands behind his back. Several officers then jumped on the man, kicking him in the ribs and hitting him with fists and batons all over his body, as he lay defenseless on the ground. All but one of those officers, Stoughton said, were found guilty of various charges associated with the incident.

The challenges with BWCs also include technical issues such as a battery that has not been charged, obstructions in front of the lens, things that occur off-camera and things that are not caught by audio or video, such as smells or tactile input like a suspect tensing his muscles in preparation to strike an officer or to flee.

The way footage is interpreted can also be affected by unconscious bias or the focus of the viewer. Interpretation of video footage can be affected by things such as the speed at which the footage is played or preconceived assumptions about the people in the video, Stoughton said.

Stoughton warned against relying too heavily on video evidence. He said video evidence should be used like any other form of evidence and should be evaluated by comparing it to other pieces of evidence such as statements, forensic evidence and other videos.

“I don’t think video is any stronger or weaker, inherently, than any other form of evidence,” Stoughton said. “What I worry about is the tendency for lawyers, for jurors, for judges to assume that video is a stronger, more reliable form of evidence – the belief, for a whole bunch of
reasons, that video is inherently more comprehensive, more accurate, than other forms of evidence, and I don’t think that’s the case. I am actually pro-BWCs. I’m just pro-being realistic about what to expect from them, in the same way that we are realistic about what we should expect from any tool that we use.”

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