Should Police Video Be Used in Court?

Does it always serve the interest of justice to release the footage?

By Michael A. Orticelle  |   Apr 25, 2016

It seems that almost every day you turn on the news there is another police incident caught on video. The videos, captured from police equipment such as dash- and bodycams are released by agencies attempting to appear transparent. Is releasing police videos helping or hurting community relations and the officers’ due process?

In a recent article Jim Glennon, owner of Calibre Press, discussed the bias surrounding the use of video of a fatal police shooting in Fresno, Calif. The video is only 1.566 seconds long, yet the family of the individual shot by the police are using this video as a basis for their lawsuit.

The police released the video, which shows the officers approaching Freddy Centeno, ordering him to get on the ground and then firing their weapons when Centeno reached into his pocket and pulled out what appeared to be a handgun. The item that he pulled out of his pocket was in fact a black spray nozzle for a garden hose.

Mr. Centeno’s family argues that the police did not give Centeno enough time to respond to their orders to get on the ground before they opened fire.

Police officials have a different interpretation of the events based on the video. They believe the video clearly shows Centeno reaching into his pocket and removing the spray nozzle (interpreted as a gun) before the officers shot him. The police claim that even though the video is only 1.566 seconds long, Centeno had enough time to go into his pocket and pull out what officers saw as a handgun and that they were justified in shooting him.

Post Facto

One of the first things officers learn about investigating criminal acts that have been witnessed by others is to separate the witnesses so that their recollection of the incident isn’t tainted by what one of the other witnesses believe they saw. When a video of an incident is released, we have essentially grouped all of the witnesses together and allowed public opinion and editorial biases to come into play over one version of events. Unfortunately, the news media and anti-police organizations have been able to control the national discussion on police use of force without significant contribution from the police who are trained to use the powers given to them.

The family of Freddy Centeno were devastated by his loss. Watching the video would certainly be difficult and traumatizing. However, when a third party looks at the video with a supposedly unbiased eye, there should be no doubt, in this case, that the officers acted properly from a legal standpoint. The biases that Jim Glennon discussed in his article are understandable when referring to the family. However, when their lawyer or a judge looks at this video from a legal standpoint and they question the officers’ actions, I question the fairness of using police videos as the basis for a lawsuit.

Michelle Maiese, philosopher and political scientist has stated (2013): “While justice in the broader sense is often thought of as transcendental, justice as fairness is more context-bound.” Society expects that justice be equitably meted out and when it’s not, the perceived inequality creates conflict. The history of the criminal justice system in the U.S. is rife with examples of real and perceived injustice.

She continues, “People’s judgments of procedural fairness result from perceptions that they have been treated … honestly, openly, and with consideration.”

The police have been attempting to revive community support by being open and transparent in handling sensitive situations. Showing the police officers perspective by releasing videos is supposed to help the community understand how difficult it is to make split-second decisions.

But even when people are given video evidence, they second-guess the officers’ motives and actions. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. But the courts, in an effort to remain neutral and fair, should be careful not to use publicly accessible evidence as the basis for a lawsuit, especially after officers have been exonerated by their department. Bottom line: There’s a need today to re-evaluate the dissemination of police videos in order to protect officers’ due process rights.

Conclusion

Most professional sports have rules on when videos are to be reviewed by the referee. The challenging of a perceived “bad call” may lead to a change in the call and the outcome of the game. Unfortunately, in the cases of police videos, the stakes are higher and there’s no going back and resetting the clock.

Maybe it’s time for lawmakers to put some rules in place for when a dash- or bodycam  video can be used as evidence against an officer in a court proceeding?