Prosecutors, defense lawyers begin to see impact of police body cameras

More manpower expected to be needed to process videos as program expands

By Heather Cobun
BridgeTower Media Newswires

BALTIMORE, MD — The impact of the widespread use of police body cameras is still uncertain, but as larger departments continue to put more cameras on the street, prosecutors and defense attorneys have a more immediate concern: how to find time to review all of the footage when it hits their desks.

Natalie Finegar, deputy public defender in Baltimore city, said district court attorneys are already asking for help viewing videos as footage becomes more common in their cases.

“This is going to be crushing for us,” Finegar said. “In my mind, it’s malpractice for them to not view every scrap of video.”

In Baltimore County, attorneys are facing an accelerated body-camera rollout.

Originally slated to be fully deployed by December 2018, County Executive Kevin Kamenentz announced Wednesday training would be advanced to have nearly 1,500 officers equipped by September. Cases are starting to make their way to district court after the rollout began in July.

“We have not yet hit the expected deluge,” said Donald Zaremba, the district’s public defender. “We haven’t received great numbers of these but we expect that to change.”

Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said only a few videos have made it to court, but with around 150 body cameras on the street and counting, and only two staff members assigned to process videos, more manpower will be needed as the program expands.

“Two are having trouble keeping up with 150,” Shellenberger said.

After the three-day weekend for Labor Day, for example, the employees came in on Tuesday to a full week’s worth of work to do just from videos linked to criminal files. It takes an hour-and-a-half to two hours to prepare each video for discovery, which includes shielding confidential information and tagging key points.

A training was held for the Baltimore County Bar Association in mid-October to explain the process to defense attorneys and allow them to ask questions based on their experiences.

‘Time suck’

Viewing all available video means a 30-minute incident can quickly become two hours of footage if multiple officers are outfitted with cameras, according to Finegar.

In a system where public defenders already claim there are discovery delays, adding hours of video footage to caseloads will only tax lawyers more, she said.

“If they grow this exponentially then our viewing time is going to grow exponentially,” she said.

Michael Schatzow, the city’s chief deputy state’s attorney, said he thinks the process is working smoothly right now, acknowledging the program is still in its infancy.

The Baltimore Police Department began its body-camera rollout in May, and in the first three months reported turning over almost 1,500 cases with associated video to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office for prosecution. Full deployment is expected by 2018.

Baltimore police expect to add 500 body cameras by the end of the year, according to Schatzow.

“If you have multiple officers on the scene of arrest and those officers are equipped with body-worn cameras and the cameras are employed by the officers and working, then yes, all of a sudden you’ve got multiple footage and the time that has to be spent looking at it increases,” he said.

Nearly all Montgomery County police officers now have body cameras following a pilot program last year. Lawyers in the county are noticing how much more time criminal cases with body cameras require, to Deputy State’s Attorney Laura Chase.

“It’s a long time to review these things,” she said. “They’re fascinating, they’re interesting most of the time, but they’re time consuming, to watch something in real time.”

After watching the videos, prosecutors have to decide what needs to be redacted and if any footage should be used at trial, which can require multiple viewings, according to Chase.

“I haven’t heard anything negative other than the time suck,” she said.

The slow rollout has allowed prosecutors to determine what resources and personnel will be required to stay on top of the flow of footage, but Chase said she doesn’t know how long it will take to hit the “saturation point.”

“We’re in the process of trying to figure all that out now for purpose of what our needs are for the future and for budget purposes,” she said.

Jeremy Eldridge, a former Baltimore city prosecutor, said if state’s attorneys are not prepared to properly process and disclose videos as a part of discovery, it can lead to delays and possible dismissals if evidence is not turned over to the defense in a timely fashion.

“No one’s going to say that having a record of what happened is a negative – the issue is making sure it’s done properly,” said Eldridge, now a criminal defense lawyer with the Law Offices of Eldridge & Nachtman in Baltimore. “The problems it can cause by not being able to get this are immense.”

Eldridge said he has gone to court in some jurisdictions where police use body cameras, including the Laurel Police Department in Prince George’s County, where he doesn’t learn that footage of his client’s arrest exists until the day of trial.

“In some situations, officers will include that information in the statement of probable cause as notice to all parties that some of the incident might have been recorded,” he said, adding that the practice is not standard.
Finegar said public defenders currently handling Baltimore City District Court cases are receiving body-camera footage on the eve or day of trial, which does not allow them to adequately review and use it.

“The partners in the criminal justice system need to sit down and find a way to make this work so it gets transmitted in a timely fashion and we have time to be prepared,” she said.

Early benefits

Chase, the Montgomery County prosecutor, said one readily apparent and positive impact of the videos is their ability to show what officers encountered and how people behaved in real time.

“It makes the case maybe easier to get your head around and understand what happened,” she said.

Eldridge agreed, noting camera footage provides an unedited record.

“Body cameras make the cases easier because it lets you know if you have an issue or not,” he said.

Zaremba, the Baltimore County public defender, said what used to be conclusory statements about a defendant’s behavior will now be caught on camera.

“When you actually see it for yourself, it’s just completely different,” he said. “I think it really shows in many instances some of the limitations of language.”

The videos also capture things that the officer may not even notice or did not include a statement of charges, as well as information defendants did not think was important to tell their attorney, lawyers said.

“It’s really fascinating,” Zaremba said, “and I think anyone who’s actually seen these can envision a real game-change in the approach to the prosecution and defense of these cases.”

Schatzow said Baltimore city has made body cameras a priority and hopes as attorneys gain experience analyzing the footage they can quickly assess the strength or weakness of their cases.

“In some cases, there will be direct evidence of a crime,” he said. “In some cases there will be direct evidence that crime did not occur, and in some cases, there will be evidence that is not direct but is helpful.”

Despite logistical hurdles, Finegar said her office is in favor of body cameras.

“From my perspective, good quality criminal defense now requires going to any recorded aspect of the arrest and viewing it,” she said.
 

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