Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Roll the In-car cameras

Several news sources, including our local paper, have reported that the Austin City Council has approved 15.5 million for new digital cameras to be installed in APD's cars. And several people have asked me what I think about this.


Seriously, I think this is a great plan and the cameras will serve the community well, in the sense that they will hopefully reduce some of the anti-police sentiment and skepticism I see (too often, frankly) and make the criminal justice system more transparent.

The press has covered this by citing high-profile incidents where cameras were not activated -- important, of course, but my concern is at the day-to-day level, the changes we'll see in the courthouse. And it will make a difference, I think we as prosecutors will see some distinct advantages, as will defense lawyers. To illustrate this, here's a scenario that happened last year:

Suspect is weaving about the road, can't stay in his lane. A cop sees him and thinks, "Maybe this guy has been drinking." He starts to tail him, maybe even activate his lights to pull him over (and right now, this is one of the things that starts the cops' videos). Well, at this point the suspect sees the cop in his mirror and concentrates extra hard on driving in a straight line.

We get to trial, and the cop testifies about the swerving, and we play the video. The defense lawyer then stands up and makes him replay the part where the defendant is not swerving at all. A little misleading and a little unfair on the cop.

The bottom line, then, is that while removing an angle of attack for defense counsel it will help us nail down the truth, and I don't think anyone can argue against that.

Also, my understanding is that the new cameras (due out in 2012) will be high-tech digital doo-dads and will actually capture images from some period of time before the camera is activated. Don't ask me, I have no idea how that works. I do know that the debate between defense counsel and the cop in the trial I had last year, where the above scenario played out in court, won't happen. If the cop was making it up about the swerving, we'll know. If he's telling the truth, we'll know that, too.

I'm also looking forward to better quality images. Now that jurors expect to see video, when we present them with crackling, fuzzy, line-filled shots they are less than satisfied. Unsurprisingly.

The automatic activation they are talking about also leaves the officers to focus more on the policing aspect of their jobs, rather than evidence collection or self-accountability. Those have to be good things, too.

And, finally, my understanding is that because they are digital and those crummy VHS tapes will no longer be used, we may be able to download videos directly from some central database. That means our investigators won't have to take time to record them, and we can get them into the hands of the defense counsel faster.

Down sides? Other than the large amount they are costing, I don't see any. Do you?


  1. Reminds me of when aviation Cockpit Voice Recorders (CVR as opposed to the data aspects) became more capable and pervasive. Many subtle aspects had not surfaced with a prototype (the use of the current VHS technology likely has provided this for Austin however). I hope Austin is not a bleeding edge innovator or if we are we stair step into the usage as the '2012' comment caught my eye. I remember major aspects of privacy (public and executive) and how to reasonably manage that information needing controls. For example things being said as a plane of 300 people is about to crash that are outside of the technical use and are of extreme negative impact to friends and family. Another example perhaps is the situation of the Sanders case. I am not sure how much I as a general member for the public needed to see that on TV. Having the information available to a system I trust is of extreme value. Placing it in the public's hands, not so much. Another example that comes to mind is when the Kyle (?) officer was shot by the older gentleman that had vowed to shoot the next initiator of contact by law enforcement, now available with even more aspects with this new technology. The public received that one with audio. Install the technology for the great reasons yet put some controls on it.

  2. You know, Mackie, that's a really interesting point. As we put in this technology to increase evidence collection and police accountability, we do have to start thinking about how available these images become to the media, and thereby to the public. Generally, I feel that the public's right to know trumps privacy concerns but there has to be a line somewhere, and I wonder if anyone has thought about where to draw it.

  3. I think you're referring to Trooper Randy Vetter, who was murdered in cold blood by an old redneck named Melvin Hale near the Yarrington Road exit on I-35 about ten years ago. Never even made it out of his black-and-white. Old Melvin (who died in prison not long ago) believed that the seat belt law was unconstitutional.

    I've represented the Texas State Troopers Assn. for 14 years now, and when DPS started installing those cameras, I had a lot of Troopers tell me, with a tone of disgust, that "when they put one in my captain's office, then they can put one in my [effin'] car." But that attitude has done a complete 180 over the years, as officers began to appreciate that the camera is their friend. It helps make cases, and it helps debunk a lot of BS complaints. I don't know how we could ever return to the status quo ante. And the newest generation of these devices is waaaay cool.

    As for my departed friend Randy...even after all these years, every once in a while I find that video posted somewhere on the Internet, and I have to beg someone to take it down for the sake of Randy's wife and child. My worst nightmare is for one of the boy's schoolmates to find it.

    That -is- the downside, and we need to develop better controls.

  4. DAC:

    I think the upside of the new cameras will be greater for criminal defense attorneys, at least with respect to traffic offenses. The defense attorney can usually do little to shake the officer's testimony that, in the example you use, the suspect's car was weaving so for the most part this will be accepted as true anyway. At the same time, as with the defense attorney in your example, the defense can then use the video to show to the court all the things the suspect was doing correctly.

    This will probably not apply in other, more serious cases, as in the very sad case of Randy Vetter which I am learning about for the first time here. (I am not from your area.) Yes, an officer can testify to, say, an assault but there is no replacement for actually witnessing an assault to inflame the passions of the finder of fact.

    I am pleased but not surprised that, as a prosecutor, you are so open to the use of the new technology. I have often suspected that many police departments don't use this type of technology, even when the technology is readily available, because of sometimes sinister reasons.

    I recognize that this reflects my sometimes jaded viewpoint as a criminal defense attorney. I am also sure that in most cases these suspicions are not justified.

  5. My hope is that the new technology will prevent the police from turning off their mics during the traffic stop/investigation. I find these long periods of silence troublesome, especially when it's obvious that the officers are intentionally prevent us from hearing what they are saying.

  6. The PD I prosecute cases for has had squad cameras for a while now. I love them. Nothing better than showing a jury exactly how bad the defendant performed on SFSTs and how he ran the stop sign two blocks from a grade school.


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