Since a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown a year ago in Ferguson, Missouri, the public has called for reforms that would require law enforcement officers to wear body cameras while on duty. In that case, a series of witnesses had claimed Brown was shot while fleeing from Wilson and raising his hands as if to surrender. However, according to the prosecuting attorney, several of those witnesses later recanted or admitted to not seeing the shooting. Proponents of placing body cameras on law enforcement officers claim that the cameras would benefit both police and civilians by better holding the police accountable for their treatment of suspects as well as helping to exonerate officers falsely accused of misconduct. A poll conducted by CBS revealed that 91 percent of respondents supported on-duty police officers wearing body cameras. Additionally, a study conducted by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology found that body-worn cameras reduced complaints against police by 90 percent and the use of force by police by 50 percent.
Under a new plan from District of Columbia Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, the city would release more footage from body cameras worn by law enforcement officers than any other major U.S. city. Not only would the footage recorded by the body cameras be available for use in courtroom proceedings, but, also under Mayor Bowser’s proposal, private individuals will be able to request body camera footage recorded in public outdoor spaces. However, under Mayor Bowser’s plan, the public would not have access to recordings taken indoors. Recordings taken in private indoor spaces would be exempt from disclosure under public record laws, attempting to balance the right to privacy with the need for transparency. Yet, the exact line between a public space and a private one remains blurred for the time being. For example, Mayor Bowser has not made clear whether footage recorded in a department store, bar, or college dormitory will be considered private or public for the purposes of disclosure under public record laws.
Other major U.S. cities are also attempting to implement body cameras. Los Angeles recently approved the use of 7,000 body cameras to equip nearly all of its officers; however, debates ensued over who should be able to view the recordings. The approved plan in Los Angeles places a blanket ban on releasing the footage outside of formal legal proceedings and allow officers to have the first look at the footage. New York began implementing body cameras in September of 2014; however, debates continue on whether the recordings should be available to the public or whether disclosure would be prevented by a New York law that prevents the disclosure of records that could be used to evaluate an officer’s performance. San Diego’s police chief, while stating that San Diego police officers who wore cameras used less force and received fewer complains from citizens, stood firmly behind the department’s policy of not releasing video footage obtained from body cameras to the media.
It is clear that Mayor Bowser’s plan for implementing body cameras in the District of Columbia is a bold and decisive move towards transparency in law enforcement, surpassing other movements throughout the Nation. The implementation of Mayor Bowser’s plan will certainly affect both practitioners representing both civilian and police defendants as well as prosecutors dealing with self-defense claims and cases of alleged police misconduct. Footage taken from body cameras would present undisputed facts, and a trial would, therefore, focus mostly on legal issues. The clear evidence provided by body cameras would thus facilitate plea deals, quicker settlements, and judgments as a matter of law. Also, it may be difficult to suppress evidence obtained from body cameras as it would be highly probative to the fact finder. A practitioner moving to suppress such evidence would have to demonstrate that the footage is somehow prejudicial. Additionally, where the footage is not released to the public and is only available for courtroom use, the prosecutors may be required to produce the footage, and defense attorneys may have an ethical duty to acquire the footage and review it with their clients. Also, venue problems may arise where body camera footage is available to the media, as jurors may be unfairly prejudiced by the media’s portrayal of the footage. The introduction of evidence from body cameras is likely to be a huge game-changer in criminal cases that will keep practitioners on their toes.
By Alyssa Mance