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Myriad issues can arise with police body cameras, videotape

Police body cameras, yes or no?

Facially, the question might reasonably seem to be not overly controversial, and perhaps even innocuous.

Yet, where police departments are concerned, of course (both in Mecklenburg County and everywhere else across the country), just about every police-related topic can become instantly provocative, even inflammatory.

The past couple years have certainly evidenced controversies and inflamed passions that have arisen largely because of visual evidence of police-related violence that has emerged.

That evidence has often been supplied by involved parties or bystanders using smartphones to film citizen/police encounters. As many of our readers will immediately note, a few videotapes have taken center stage in national news stories that have put select police departments on the defensive and brought about material policy changes.

One such change is the aforementioned body camera. Although officers in a small minority of police departments across the country have worn such devices for years, it is only recently that the cameras have gained widespread traction in police units.

The recent CMPD Officer Randall Kerrick trial is a case in point.  A fellow officer's dash-mounted camera captured part of the interaction with the deceased suspect, showing him charging at Kerrick.  However, he was quickly out of camera range and the dashcam did not capture his actions as the shots were fired when he closed the distance between himself and Officer Kerrick, who claimed that he was on top of him and struggling for his gun.  An expensive civil settlement was reached and a long, painful and costly criminal trial resulted in a hung jury.  (The case was ultimately dismissed.) Had Kerrick been issued a body camera rather than relying on a fixed mounted dashcam, the civil negotiators and criminal jury would have had much more information to go on and different results may have ensued.  

As camera use is increasingly implemented, it will likely underscore what one news account references as "the latest clash between the people's right to know and government authority."

Put another way: When will police video evidence be released for public viewing and appraisal?

As the above-cited article notes, quick and routine release is not the norm in North Carolina, where videos "are considered confidential elements of crime scene investigations." As such, North Carolinians do not possess an automatic right to see them.

Myriad evidentiary issues can arise with taped evidence. A videotape might not convey the entire essence of an event that occurred, for example. A tape might promote a certain reality because of the manner in which it was shot (from a particular angle, for instance). Evidence could have been erased or otherwise tampered with.

An experienced criminal defense attorney is trained to closely scrutinize and evaluate evidentiary issues of all types. The attorney may also consider working with an expert to scrutinize the video for alterations.  Any person with questions or concerns regarding a taped police encounter or any other evidence-related matter might reasonably want to timely contact a proven attorney for guidance and, when necessary, diligent legal representation.

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Law Office of Christopher A. Connelly
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