The rising number of law enforcement agencies using body cameras is presenting a proverbial double-edged sword for public defenders in the Carolinas.
On one hand, footage taken during arrests and other incidents provide them with a chest-eye view of what happened. But on the other, attorneys must review the footage—often taken by multiple officers from multiple angles—and that takes a lot of time.
“It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a challenge,” said D. Ashley Pennington, who is the head of the Charleston County Public Defender Office. “I don’t think anybody has the time to just sit and watch body cams all day long. We have body camera footage in almost every case now in Charleston, and that essentially has slowed things down. We are just working harder.”
As police body cams have become increasingly popular across the country, the problem is not limited to South Carolina. Virginia’s legislature ordered the formation of a group to study the impact of body cameras on public defenders’ offices. While it hasn’t gone that far in the Carolinas, public defenders said that it is a challenge that their offices are definitely dealing with.
“This is not just a local or statewide issue,” said Charles Caldwell, the head of Wake County’s Public Defender Office in North Carolina. “You might call this a national phenomenon or problem.”
Because the judicial system is underfunded, public defender offices have more cases to cover, in part because of lower reimbursement rates for private defense attorneys, and that limits the pool of attorneys willing to take indigent clients, said Anthony Monaghan, an assistant public defender in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
“The hourly rate does not even cover the overhead costs of an attorney with office space in Charlotte, and this results in the triaging of cases, where you sometimes have to pick and choose what to listen to and watch.”
Caldwell said that if there is a 30-minute incident involving four officers that can result in two hours’ worth of video, assuming all had their cameras on.
“You could ask an intern or a legal assistant to help review the footage, but there is nothing like the attorney looking at it, and most attorneys want to see every bit themselves,” Caldwell said.
Attorneys’ decisions about how to make the most efficient use of their time are crucial, though, because the evidence produced by body cams can be pivotal in a case. Oftentimes the information revealed by the videos is either left out of police incident reports entirely, or directly contradicts them.
“You can tell the demeanor of witnesses at the moment, which is highly relevant in terms of intoxication or attitude,” Caldwell said. “If the guy falls out of the car with beer cans, the game is up. But if the person gets out of the car and everything goes well, then you have something to buy into there. It cuts both ways.”
And in the long run, the footage can help defendants avoid a trial, particularly if they don’t look good on camera, despite proclamations of their innocence.
“You can take the video and say to your client, ‘let’s rethink what happened here,’” Caldwell said.
They’re cops, not Coppolas
Beyond the time it takes to review footage, there is a problem with officers either not starting their body cams or cutting them off, often in violation of their departments’ rules and regulations, Monaghan said.
“I have had situations where the officer records until they arrive on scene and as they are about to speak with a witness about what happened, the officer cuts off the BWC [body-worn camera] so there is no video evidence of the conversation,” he said.
Other problems crop up as well. In response to a 2017 hacking incident, the Mecklenburg County public defender’s office can no longer use cloud-based services to access the videos. Moreover, Monaghan and his colleagues must access documents to see which officer the corresponding video is from.
“The more officers involved, the more time this takes,” Monaghan said. “The videos then need to be viewed and sometimes there is nothing of importance—for example, the video only shows the officer driving to the scene. As I review discovery, I now highlight the most important officers, those that were on scene, had interaction with witnesses, and had interaction with my client. I need to view these officers’ body cameras, but may not need to view another officer’s camera who was just involved in traffic control or just responded to the scene, but did nothing of note.”
Monaghan notes that there is a particular problem with body cams and traffic stops. Prior to the prevalence of body cams, dash cams—which are no longer used as often, he said—were attached near the rearview mirror and would show everything in front of a patrol car. In Mecklenburg County, the body cam is normally attached in the middle of the officer’s chest, and it shows the interior of the patrol car rather than the exterior.
“This can be important as now there is no video evidence of the reason for the traffic stop, just the officer’s word,” Monaghan said.
Monaghan said that the body cameras are just one part of a larger issue that attorneys face when it comes to video recordings of incidents. As technological advances are making security cameras increasingly prevalent, they’re capturing more and more security footage for attorneys to review. But different cameras’ footage will often come in a variety of file formats, which may or may not work on a particular computer.
Whatever the challenges, the public defenders say that access to body camera footage is crucial when they are crafting their client’s defense.
“I would rather have too much information than too little,” Monaghan said.
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw