When should cops view their body camera footage?

The majority of police executives consulted in the PERF report were in favor of allowing cops to review footage before making a statement


One of the biggest debates that has emerged with the rise in use of body-worn cameras is the question of when to allow officers to view their footage. Should cops be allowed to review footage of an incident prior to making a statement? Or is it better for an officer’s statement to reflect the events based on how the officer perceived them at the time?

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and the Department of Justice's Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services (COPS) conducted a study in which officers of varying ranks discussed this issue.

Making a Statement Before Reviewing Footage
Some police executives PERF interviewed were of the opinion that it is better for a cop’s statement to capture what he or she perceived during the event versus what the camera captured.

“In terms of the officer’s statement, what matters is the officer’s perspective at the time of the event, not what is in the video,” Major Mark Person of the Prince George’s County (Md.) Police Department told PERF. “That perspective is what they are going to have to testify to. If officers watch the video before making a statement, they might tailor the statement to what they see. It can cause them to second-guess themselves, which makes them seem less credible.”

The ultimate goal is to get to the truth — not catch an officer in a lie. (AP Image)
The ultimate goal is to get to the truth — not catch an officer in a lie. (AP Image)

Reviewing Footage Prior to Making a Statement
The majority of police executives consulted in the PERF report were in favor of allowing cops to review footage before making a statement. Why? It allows cops to recall events more clearly — and the ultimate goal is to get to the truth.

Chief Ron Miller of the Topeka (Kan.) Police Department told PERF, “What we are after is the truth. …An officer should be given the chance to make a statement using all of the evidence available; otherwise, it looks like we are just trying to catch an officer in a lie.”

PERF, which also agrees that cops should review video footage before making a statement, wrote in their report that real-time recording — in most cases — is a more accurate account of what happened in incidents that require an administrative review or result in a court proceeding than what an officer can recall from memory. The reasons for this are varied, but it primarily comes down to stress. Eyewitness testimony, according to the report, has shown that stress results in a distortion or distraction that makes it extremely difficult for an individual to correctly remember events.

During a session at the 2014 International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), Dr. Donald Dawes and Dr. Jeffrey Ho outlined the results of an experiment they conducted to analyze how well cops are able to recall critical incidents in detail. 

11 cops role played three typical scenarios and then were asked to write incident reports for them. They then watched the footage of those incidents and were able to edit their reports with their changes tracked so they could see how many changes were made and how drastic the changes were. The researchers found, on average, that each officer made:

  • 2.63 minor errors
  • 5.4 moderate errors
  • One major error (Major errors included misreporting significant statements, misreporting the presence of a gun, omitting dangerous behaviors, and dispatch communication errors) 

PERF states that if a jury or administrative review body sees that the report and video have two differing accounts of an incident, the inconsistencies in the evidence can harm the case or unfairly undermine an officer’s credibility. 

Conclusion
A body-worn camera can be a cop’s best friend, but a policy that isn’t carefully thought-out can result in the cameras working against you. Determining whether or not your officers will be allowed to view footage prior to making a statement is one of the most important decisions your agency must make prior to rolling out a BWC program.  

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