People want to know whether their interactions with law enforcement are on camera. In this corner of Wyoming, most of the time (note: most of the time, not all the time), law enforcement is taking video.
1. Will the video help me?
It depends. In the news and on Youtube, we see a lot of shocking police video. We see the cop throw the teenager in the bathing suit on the ground for no good reason. We see the officer in hot pursuit of a fleeing suspect who gets creamed by the vigilante mom. Yet most of the time, real life police video is much less interesting. We see an officer doing their job in a professional manner. We see a motorist commit a traffic infraction and apologize.
There are only a few situations where the video will help you:
- The officer says that X happened, but in the video we clearly see that Y happened. This is rare, and often when it does happen, it doesn’t make much of a difference. For example, the officer says “the vehicle was weaving in its lane,” but when you watch the video, you don’t really see anything other than normal driving. This isn’t good: officers shouldn’t exaggerate. But it probably isn’t going to get the case thrown out either. Judges and prosecutors typically give the officer the benefit of the doubt. The officer can always claim that the perspective of the camera was different than his perspective. Or whatever. Usually, they come up with some explanation. It’s frustrating.
- The video shows that you were innocent. For example, in a DUI traffic stop, the officer says that your vehicle went over the line, you slurred your words, and then failed the field sobriety tests. The video shows your vehicle went nowhere near the line, you spoke clearly, and you passed the tests. This is good for you and bad for the officer. It’s also extremely rare.
- The video shows something that officer left out. For example, in the report, the officer says that he did a breath test at the jail and got a result above the legal limit. In Wyoming, the officer is required to observe you for 15 minutes to make sure you’re not burping (burping can affect the test result). Suppose you watch the video and the officer only observed you for 13 minutes, and during that time you burped. Then you have an argument as to why the breath test should be thrown out.
2. How do I know if there is video?
By law, the prosecutor has to provide you with all exculpatory evidence, and all the evidence that they will use against you. In my experience, this means that prosecutors always turn over whatever video they have. Your attorney will file a demand for discovery, and the prosecutor will give your attorney the videos and reports.
3. What kinds of video are there?
There are a couple different kinds of video that you’re likely to see in a criminal case:
Dashcam. Dashcam video comes from a camera mounted on the police vehicle. In my experience, dashcam video is common in cases involving the Town of Jackson Police Department and with Wyoming Highway Patrol (any county). It is somewhat less common, but still likely in cases involving Federal Park Rangers (Grand Teton, Yellowstone). The Teton County Sheriff’s Office generally has video as well. In your case, however, there may not be video. Sometimes it’s not working, or it’s not installed in the particular vehicle the officer was driving. It just depends.
All of these recording systems are set up slightly differently. This can be confusing for people. Generally, the cameras are constantly recording. But the dashcams only save the footage to the disc once the overhead lights are activated. However, since the cameras are constantly recording, it’s possible for the dashcam to save the minute or so before the overhead lights came on. So if the officer is following your car for 15 minutes, observes a traffic infraction, and then lights up the overhead lights to stop you, there may only be footage beginning from the minute prior to the traffic infraction, not the full 15 minutes. Also, there may only be audio from when the lights turn on. Generally, they’re not recording audio when the officer is driving around on patrol.
Because law enforcement agencies do this differently, all this could change with a software update. So this is just a general discussion. It’s not a promise by me about how this works and always will work.
What else? All of these law enforcement agencies use different file formats. Sometimes the same law enforcement agency uses two file formats, one for the dashcam and one for the body cam. Some file formats must be played on a PC; others require a certain program to open. It’s inconsistent. I actually keep a PC for the sole purpose of playing Wyoming Highway Patrol video.
Shoulder cam, lapel cam or body cam. Some officers are equipped with a camera attached to their body. These can be very small, and you might not actually remember the officer having one. Generally, the Town of Jackson police have them and use them. Other agencies not so much. Again, this could change soon.
Body cams are typically newer than daschams and have better technology. Think GoPro vs America’s funniest home videos from the Bob Saget era.
Surveillance video. This is video that the officer gets from a third party. Say someone is accused of shoplifting from the gas station. The officer typically asks the gas station to provide him with video of the incident. Often it’s just time lapse video (only takes a picture every second, as opposed to a continuous video). These videos are all over the place in terms of quality. And not all gas stations and bars have them, and if they do have them, they may not capture the incident. So they’re less common in my experience. Generally, the officer will follow through and get them in a felony case or in an assault, but doesn’t always get them in a misdemeanor case.
Your video. This is something I haven’t personally seen in Teton County. Sometimes people will record officers–either surreptitiously, or directly. If you have a smartphone, it’s an option. There are also civilian dashcams that people attach to their own cars, with the theory that they protect against frivolous lawsuits.
I don’t have any advice about whether you should film police officers. If you saw something really volatile, it could be a good idea. Personally, I was stopped for speeding on an empty highway a couple weeks ago. As the trooper approached my vehicle, it occurred to me to get out my cell phone and film him. But I didn’t do it. I decided not to. In a different situation–for example, if I saw an officer messing with a college student at the bar, I might. I don’t know. I haven’t made up my mind.
4. Isn’t video unfair to law enforcement?
There is this generally conservative position that requiring officers to wear body cameras or use dashcams is unfair. The argument is that requiring cameras tells the officers that “society doesn’t trust them” or something like that. I’m not sympathetic to that argument, however, I do see some drawbacks. Here are some of the pros and cons:
In my experience, officers often like cameras for a couple reasons:
- Cameras protect officers from false complaints. If someone says they were sexually harassed during a pat down, yet the video shows the officer behaving in a professional manner, the officer is protected.
- Cameras show that the officer has a really hard job. When an officer needs to deal with a drunk, violent person, the film will show that the officer was in a tough spot, and justified using force to put the person in the back of the patrol car. So when the person wakes up the next day with a bruise, and doesn’t remember what happened, he can’t just blame the officer.
However, these benefits come at the expense of the officer’s discretion. If an officer with a body camera comes across a teenager drinking a beer in the park, the officer can’t just pour the beer out and let the teenager go with a warning. Instead, that teenager is going to get cited. Whether (a) officers ever did that, or (b) you think that’s a good thing, is an open question. I will say that when officers know they’re being filmed, they are more likely to follow the rules and regulations exactly. For most people and for most situations, that’s a good thing.