Roll the In-Car Cameras


Read more of Mark Pryor’s work at his blog D.A. Confidential.

Several news sources, including our local paper, have reported that the Austin City Council has approved 15.5 million for new digital cameras to be installed in APD’s cars. And several people have asked me what I think about this.


Seriously, I think this is a great plan and the cameras will serve the community well, in the sense that they will hopefully reduce some of the anti-police sentiment and skepticism I see (too often, frankly) and make the criminal justice system more transparent.

The press has covered this by citing high-profile incidents where cameras were not activated — important, of course, but my concern is at the day-to-day level, the changes we’ll see in the courthouse. And it will make a difference, I think we as prosecutors will see some distinct advantages, as will defense lawyers. To illustrate this, here’s a scenario that happened last year:

Suspect is weaving about the road, can’t stay in his lane. A cop sees him and thinks, “Maybe this guy has been drinking.” He starts to tail him, maybe even activate his lights to pull him over (and right now, this is one of the things that starts the cops’ videos). Well, at this point the suspect sees the cop in his mirror and concentrates extra hard on driving in a straight line.

We get to trial, and the cop testifies about the swerving, and we play the video. The defense lawyer then stands up and makes him replay the part where the defendant is not swerving at all. A little misleading and a little unfair on the cop.

The bottom line, then, is that while removing an angle of attack for defense counsel it will help us nail down the truth, and I don’t think anyone can argue against that.

Also, my understanding is that the new cameras (due out in 2012) will be high-tech digital doo-dads and will actually capture images from some period of time before the camera is activated. Don’t ask me, I have no idea how that works. I do know that the debate between defense counsel and the cop in the trial I had last year, where the above scenario played out in court, won’t happen. If the cop was making it up about the swerving, we’ll know. If he’s telling the truth, we’ll know that, too.

I’m also looking forward to better quality images. Now that jurors expect to see video, when we present them with crackling, fuzzy, line-filled shots they are less than satisfied. Unsurprisingly.

The automatic activation they are talking about also leaves the officers to focus more on the policing aspect of their jobs, rather than evidence collection or self-accountability. Those have to be good things, too.

And, finally, my understanding is that because they are digital and those crummy VHS tapes will no longer be used, we may be able to download videos directly from some central database. That means our investigators won’t have to take time to record them, and we can get them into the hands of the defense counsel faster.

Down sides? Other than the large amount they are costing, I don’t see any. Do you?

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