Op-Ed: Truth Lost When Officers View Body Cam Footage

By Jeff Adachi

Special to the SF Examiner

In a few months, 2,000 San Francisco police officers will be outfitted with body cameras. These tiny recording devices serve as objective witnesses and hold the promise to revolutionize the accuracy of investigations.

Today, the San Francisco Police Commission will take on a contentious and crucial question: Should officers be allowed to review their body camera footage before writing their reports?

The top national eyewitness experts say no, especially in cases in which the officer may have a vested interest in the case. If a police officer is allowed to look at the video, it will consciously or unconsciously influence what he or she writes in a report. Consequently, we will lose the officers’ independent evaluation of what happened.

This is important because, while viewing the footage can show us precisely what happened, it cannot tell us an officer’s perception of an event. It cannot inform us of heightened stress, competing distractions or fear. Only an officer’s untainted recollection can provide this vital piece of evidence.

Let’s say you have a police officer who believes he sees a motorist running a red light. When we look at the video from the officer’s body camera, we see the light was green. The officer has already written the ticket. Is that officer going to feel pressure to find some other grounds to justify the arrest because the video shows he’s wrong? Of course.

Let me give you another example: An officer nabs someone for resisting arrest. The officer says the suspect struggled while being handcuffed. The footage shows this isn’t true. Now if the officer is allowed to view the video, how is he or she going to write the report? Is the officer going to let the person go and admit it was a mistake? Or will the officer be tempted to add other facts to justify the arrest?

Video can be used to expose officers who deliberately lie, confabulate or exaggerate their reports. In the much-publicized fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, the recently released footage quickly disproved officers’ long-held claims about McDonald’s behavior. If the police officers involved had viewed the footage before making statements, they might have tailored their accounts to comport with the video.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association has vigorously opposed any policy that would limit the officers’ rights to see the video in every instance. The POA even opposes the Mayor’s Working Group recommendation that police be prohibited from viewing footage when the officer shoots a citizen or is accused of criminal wrongdoing.

This position is at odds with virtually every expert opinion.

The Inspector General for the New York Police Department, who provides oversight for the nation’s largest police force, has said that NYPD should limit officers’ rights to view the footage in any cases involving possible police misconduct.

Dr. Kathy Pezdek, one of the nation’s top eyewitness experts, says eyewitnesses, including police officers, are susceptible to being influenced by body camera footage. This post-event information makes eyewitness accounts less reliable, not more.

“Once an officer has viewed the video, his account is no longer a reliable source of evidence about his perception of what transpired at the time,” Dr. Pezdek writes. “This valuable information is forever lost.”

Viewing footage before writing an eyewitness account creates a double standard by treating police differently from civilian witnesses. Civilian witnesses will not be allowed to watch the video before making a statement, and the police shouldn’t be allowed to either.
Officials in San Jose determined their police should not view video in officer involved shootings, in-custody deaths or any intentional act by an officer that causes injury likely to produce death. Richmond, which was the first Bay Area police department to use body cameras, has a similar policy. We should follow their examples.

If the Police Commission makes the wrong decision today, we will lose the ability to require officers to write down their independent recollection as to what happened. Instead, we will get a police version, which will always agree with the video. It will destroy one of the main reasons to have the body cameras in the first place: to provide a check and balance between the police perception and video evidence.

Jeff Adachi is the San Francisco Public Defender.