Body-worn camera footage allows the viewer to see first-hand what a police officer does and is intended to solve problems of officers fabricating and exaggerating events that transpired during the course of their official work duties.
To devise a competent and successful criminal defense strategy, one must get the best possible understanding of the arrest.
Before body-worn camera footage was widely available, criminal defense attorneys had to rely solely on biased or false police reports to know the arresting officer’s version of events. Why was the individual stopped and/or arrested? What was their demeanor? How did the officer behave? And, most importantly, what did the individual say, if anything, to the officer?
What did the body camera footage reveal?
Tyre Nichols’ murder has led some to conclude that while body-worn camera footage gives people a chance to see what happened, it has not reduced police violence as much as one might have hoped. The police report written after officers beat Tyre Nichols described him as an “irate” suspect who “started to fight.”
The body camera footage contradicts this description. Tyre Nichols neither resists arrest nor retaliates. This footage would be helpful during a trial if one of the arresting officers gave testimony consistent with the untrue report.
The footage not only highlights Mr. Nichols not doing anything wrong but also how the arresting officers were doing many things “wrong,” to use the term lightly.
The officers gave Tyre Nichols a flurry of contradicting orders while placing him under baseless and violent arrest. The report falsely states that Mr. Nichols tried to grab a law enforcement officer’s gun.
The report says nothing regarding one of the most apparent points to take from the footage, that the officers who had sworn to uphold their badge and duties were careless, indifferent, and violent towards Mr. Nichols and violated his constitutional rights.
The legality of deadly force
Criminal defense attorneys consider the legality of deadly force. The reasonableness component for police officers is supposed to factor in the necessity of split-second decisions that officers must make.
Officers are to use lethal force only if they reasonably think someone is dangerous to them or the public. They must ask (1) whether it’s necessary to use force at all and, if it is, then (2) whether they used a degree of force proportional to the threat.
Some police departments teach the difference between active and passive resistance and what specific responses officers can use. Criminal defense attorneys can put it to juries to decide whether officers’ actions were consistent with their training.
Police body-worn cameras are fairly new
Body-worn camera footage is relatively new in policing history. Police departments often did everything they could to avoid releasing the footage. This tactic was sometimes part of a larger delaying strategy involving drawing out a conduct investigation to ward off press attention and speculation.
However, given public knowledge of camera footage and the fervor against police misconduct, police departments release more information quickly in the aftermath of events like Mr. Nichols’s murder. This quickening of the pace has met opposition from police, who state that releasing too much information too quickly could cloud or impede a proper investigation.
Many departments have now decided to run that risk to avoid the greater risk of not seeming transparent and willing to comply with public demand.
The case against body-worn cameras
Some criminal defense attorneys argue that releasing body-worn camera footage is too prejudicial to their clients. They state that such footage, while pertinent, will unfairly sway potential jurors against yet-to-be-released evidence necessary for a fair trial. But there are as many sides to a story as there are people around to perceive it.
Because police have lied about what happens during arrests, people believe transparency is the first necessary step in police reform and the prevention of further police officials’ misconduct. There are likely to be some who think that the footage should be released – because it is so inflammatory.
A criminal defense lawyer must work according to the realities of their clients. Some could argue that body-worn camera footage, regardless of legal concerns around prejudice, presents views of black and brown realities. They show what it can be like to interact with the police.
If it shows extreme violence, such is because police encounters can quickly become violent. If it shows gunfire, it could be because guns are abundant in the United States. Body-worn camera video visually shows what happened. It gives both the prosecution and the defense more evidence to work with and shows what can happen in police encounters with civilians.
What happened to Tyre Nichols should not have happened, but it did – and it is one of many similar circumstances. Getting a good sense of the circumstances through body-worn cameras is imperative for criminal defense attorneys who might otherwise have to contend with false police reports.