The Czar got an interesting question in the mail today from Operative BJ:
This lowly minion was having a discussion with his eldest offspring, “she who lives in LA”, about the latest officer-involved shooting in South Carolina, when the issue of “body cameras” came up.
To be sure, I support the use of body cameras on police officers. They have already shown their utility in several high-profile incidents, where claims of “racial discrimination” have been easily disproven and the officers have instead been commended for their calm and polite demeanor.
The “chain of custody” rules require that evidence collected at the scene of a crime be identified, labeled and tagged, transported, and stored in a secure manner. Any subsequent access to that evidence must be done in a supervised manner, with procedures approved by the court. The purpose is to ensure that evidence is not tampered with in any way. Any change or alteration can be used as a reason to disregard that evidence in court – and that could result in a known-guilty defendant to be freed “on a technicality”, or could cause an innocent person to be falsely convicted of a crime.
Many folks believe that all we need is a “camera on every cop”. But it takes more. A LOT more.
Video files from a video camera need to follow those same “chain of custody” rules of evidence. But that’s not all. Since video cameras typically capture more than just the subject, the privacy of bystanders and others on the video must also be protected. What about individuals who should be elsewhere but whose faces appear as bystanders on a crime scene video? If they refuse to testify or their testimony isn’t needed, should their faces be electronically scrubbed or erased (“pixellated”) from the video to protect their identities? Is this tampering with evidence?
Then there’s the case of archival storage. Where is the video from that camera stored? Do we trust police departments to store their own video files the same way we (apparently) trusted Hillary Clinton to use her own server to store State Department emails? Who is responsible for the “chain of custody” and any privacy law violations if the server is on an internal network and someone not involved in the case retrieves those images and uses them for unauthorized purposes?
The video can’t be stored “on the cloud” because those services (Google, Dropbox, etc) typically reserve the right to use any portion of the video for their own purposes. Plus, storing the video “on the cloud” would violate “chain of custody” rules: how can the prosecution prove that the video was not tampered with by the “cloud server”? And if the “cloud service” shuts down (as with Nirvanix or Apple’s MobileMe), who is responsible for downloading those video files – and to where?
Yes, the use of police body cameras to record all transactions between police officers and the public can be used to offset false accusations of police misconduct, or to prosecute officers for their misconduct. And those cameras can be used to prosecute those who violate the law.
But it takes more than a camera, a laptop, and “the cloud” for our jurisprudential system to work and for Constitutional protections to be properly exercised. The logistics of “chain of custody” for police video files needs to be fully understood, and a properly configured and court-approved infrastructure must be put in place before we proceed much further down the road of capturing electronic evidence that could be used to convict someone of a serious crime.
Coincidentally, the Czar knows a fair amount about this very subject, so apologies for a detailed response.
The rules for video recordings in law enforcement situations have been pretty well established for a long time, and while body cameras were not anticipated, this new technology plugs into existing rules very well.
Local jurisdictions vary in how they handle video, but by and large there is a significant difference between camera footage and video evidence. How each is handled is important.
Body cameras will or are (not all jurisdictions have them yet) treated as conventional video: the video will be off-loaded either manually by the officer at the end of each shift, or will automatically dump raw video onto a storage unit in the car or at the station. If video is stored in the vehicle, this data will transfer to a server in the garage automatically.
Video is stored for two years, or more if there’s room on the server. After that time, it can be deleted by being over-written.
If, however, the officer or department is accused of something, or if the body camera was operating during the commission of some crime, then the video in question becomes evidence. An evidence technician logs into the server, identifies the video in question, and transfers it to a secure recorder. This evidence is effectively tagged by the technician: name of technician, date recorded, date extracted, officer in question, time code from the raw video, whether it has been edited and where and by whom, and so on. The Czar has seen these systems, and knows that the amount of information that goes into it is pretty strict.You are of course correct that there is a chain of evidence custody that exactly matches all other evidence. The video, once extracted, cannot go back into the raw video feed. Nor can anybody look at it: in fact, the video is stored on a physically separate system off the network to ensure that only evidence technicians and authorities having jurisdiction can access it. An attorney from either side can ask to see the evidence to ensure it has not been tampered with, nor viewed by anyone who should not be seeing it. The department in question is ultimately responsible for evidence in their custodyif video leaks out from an attorney, well, that becomes the attorney’s nightmare.
Video evidence is stored indefinitely: even after conclusion of the case, the video is saved in a secure fashion. Because this video is not available to the public, no one’s face needs to be blurred or masked. If this evidence is released to the public, any such blurring or masking happens at the discretion of the judge approving it for release.
The possibility of storing evidence long-term on the Cloud does exist, but the Czar is unaware of any department doing that: although the Cloud can be made rock-solid secure (perhaps more so than storing it locally in a department evidence room), there’s still a general feeling of unease about the Cloud, so it will be a while before this evidence is stored there. Remember: just because you have access to the video doesn’t mean you can make sense of it. It’s encoded, and without the proper authentication, you’ll get nothing but gibberish. Trust us: hacking encoded video is not like the movies: it’s difficult to do if the proper and common procedures are followed.
Also note that “the Cloud” isn’t the same as Google or Dropbox: there are indeed private clouds that ordinary folks can’t touch. It’s easy to set yourself up on a secure cloud, by the way: or you can just pay somebody to do it for you. It’s like a crime lab: you can have your own, or you can pay a third-party to provide you these services. At all points, the chain of custody must be maintained.
So really, there’s not a whole lot of difference between body camera evidence and regular video evidenceor criminal evidence in general. The procedures are very well understood, and while body cameras are pretty new, they’re no different than cameras set up in interview, interrogation, or booking areas.
Hope this helps. The Czar is a big supporter of body cameras for two reasons: (a) the public really wants them, because ultimately the public is the best suited for quis custodiet ipsos custodes, and (b) the police officers really want them because frivolous police brutality claims drop by 90% as soon as the accuser hears there’s actual video of him starting it. Frankly, body cameras are proving to be the best solution to the Code of Silence in bad law enforcement. We want it, and cops want it. The cameras are cheap, relative to a lawsuit, and the storage systems and evidence procedures are already in play. What’s the problem, right?
Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.