The Evidentiary Value of Body-Worn Camera Footage: A Survey of Prosecutors and Public Defenders
This In View Commentary examines the perspectives and attitudes of Assistant District Attorneys (ADAs) and Public Defenders (PDs) about body-worn camera (BWC) footage. The study describes their views regarding several benefits and disadvantages of the use of BWCs in a court of law, specifically focusing on the context of time, expectations, and anticipated consequences. This is a summary of a larger report, which can be found here.
Increased law enforcement use of BWCs has transformed BWC footage into a critical piece of evidence. In Monroe County, New York; San Diego County, California; and Travis County, Texas, researchers studied the perspectives of PDs and ADAs in each of their respective sites. The researchers report on results of an online survey that compared and contrasted perspectives of PDs and ADAs. They administered six questions covering the following topics: 1) experiences and opinions regarding BWC usage and infrastructure, 2) concerns about processing and using footage, 3) impact on the offices, 4) impact on specific elements of negotiation and case processing, 5) time and proportion spent on footage review, and 6) types of cases in which BWCs are useful.
The researchers selected three sites for the study that adopted BWCs at varying points in time: Monroe County, New York; San Diego County, California; and Travis County, Texas. Survey respondents included licensed attorneys and supervisors members of the District Attorney’s Office and Public Defender’s Office.
The researchers created and administered an online survey in the fall of 2018. They contacted a total of 217 ADAs and 207 PDs via email. The researchers achieved a response rate of 53.5 percent (ADAs) and 41 percent (PDs); Monroe County recorded the highest response rate and San Diego recorded the lowest response rate.
The researchers compared the respondents’ views of the impact of BWC footage on PDs and ADAs’ time, expectations and its anticipated impact on case negotiation and case processing.
Experience and Opinions Regarding BWCs
Within this category, 11 questions were asked of both the ADAs and the PDs. Three statements showed statistically significant differences in their opinions. Responses to “Specific training is needed in order to handle body-camera evidence” indicate that 74.5 percent of PDs agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, compared to 49.2 percent of ADAs. Results show 60 percent of PDs and nearly 80 percent of ADAs agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Your section/bureau/division procedures for maintaining body camera footage as evidence are effective”. The third contrast between the groups of respondents involved the statement, “Attorneys in your office support the use of body-worn cameras by law enforcement.” Surprisingly, 81 percent of PDs agreed or strongly agreed with this statement, compared to 56 percent of the ADAs who agreed or strongly agreed.
PDs and ADAs agreed about the need for upgrades, support, training, IT support, video relay, video technology, evidence training, administrative assistance, storage, and effective procedures.
Concerns About Processing and Using BWC Footage
The prospect of removing sensitive information from videos was highly concerning to PDs (65.9 percent) as compared to their ADA counterparts (28.7 percent). In contrast, jurors questioning of testimony in the absence of video was of great or high concern to 77.3 percent of PDs while more than 98 percent of ADAs indicated great or high concern about that prospect. PDs showed greater concern for the timeliness of obtaining video, its objectivity, and the activation of cameras, as well as variation in policies across agencies in their respective jurisdictions. The final significant contrast involved concern about the impact of BWC on the relationship with law enforcement, with 47.4 percent of ADAs having no concern but 68.2 percent of PDs having that response. This result is unsurprising given closer ADA-police working relationships and possible strains that BWC can introduce.
Impact of BWC Footage on Each Office
The researchers analyzed PDs’ and ADAs’ opinions and perceptions regarding how BWCs impact their offices and elements of case negotiation or case processing. Only one statistically significant difference across groups appeared: 86 percent of PDs agreed or strongly agreed that BWCs could produce major differences with testimony, but only 18 percent of ADAs responded in those two categories. General agreement between ADAs and PDs were found in that both groups believe that BWCs improved their respective abilities to defend or prosecute cases. Both overwhelmingly agreed or strongly agreed with the idea that case preparation time was increased by BWCs. Nearly all ADAs and PDs disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that BWCs make fact-finding more difficult, while both showed agreement that BWCs are a useful tool for witness preparation.
Impact of Footage on Negotiations and Case Processing
The perceived benefits of BWCs on case negotiation and processing were captured in eight items. Majorities of both groups agreed or strongly agreed that video evidence increases pleas, though approximately 40 percent of both groups disagreed with the statement that plea bargaining increased with BWC evidence. Sixty-six percent of PDs agreed or strongly agreed that BWCs increased the likelihood of acquittals whereas 61 percent of ADAs agreed or strongly agreed that they increased the likelihood of convictions.
The study captured differences in three areas. First, almost 40 percent of PDs disagreed or strongly disagreed that BWCs will increase officers’ observances of defendants’ rights, compared to 14 percent of ADAs. A total of 67.5 percent of PDs agreed or strongly agreed that BWCs would increase the likelihood of dismissal, as compared to 30 percent of ADAs. Finally, 32 percent of PDs believed BWCs would increase appeals, as compared to 11 percent of ADAs.
Time Spent Reviewing BWC Footage
The researchers further explored the increased time spent on case preparation. Here, 90 percent of PDs and 95 percent of ADAs reported spending at least one hour reviewing case footage prior to hearings. Nearly a quarter of PDs and more than one-third of ADAs reported spending more than five hours viewing video for typical cases. This time commitment is a substantial addition to the time spent by ADAs and PDs working on prosecutions and defenses.
In cases where a charge was brought, PDs (40 percent) and ADAs (60 percent) viewed footage in one in four cases and approximately 33 percent of both groups viewed footage when a plea bargain was reached indicating that video is often not viewed.
Usefulness of BWCs
Responses to an open-ended question indicated BWCs are most useful in specific cases involving intoxicated driving, resisting arrest, and domestic violence/assault cases.
Limitations and Conclusions
This study explored variations between ADAs’ and PDs’ opinions regarding time, expectations, and anticipated impact on case negotiation and case processing when BWC footage is present. Overall, PDs and ADAs agreed more often than they disagreed. Both DA’s and the PD’s are supportive of BWCs, think that it significantly impacts case processing, witness testimony and preparation, and the amount of time needed to process cases where BWC footage is available. It is important to note however, that BWCs is not uniformly viewed in all cases where it is available. There are some important differences in that DA’s are more likely to think that BWCs will positively impact officer behavior regarding respecting constitutional rights, PDs are more likely to think that BWC footage will contradict witness testimony, PDs are more concerned about the timeliness of obtaining video, and that sensitive information be removed. However, while the study was informative, it had some limitations. The research consisted of a survey, with only one open-ended question. Further research should look at case proceedings and outcomes and require more in-depth interviews. Lastly, readers should note ADA and PD BWC responsibilities might differ by city, jurisdiction, or state. The study was not designed to capture every array of prosecutorial experiences and should not be generalized to every jurisdiction. Nevertheless, the information derived from this study was consistent with previous literature on BWCs and prosecutors’ approaches.
Dr. Craig D. Uchida serves as a Senior Advisor on BWC TTA and is President of Justice & Security Strategies, Inc. Dr. Uchida is responsible for locating funding streams, negotiating contracts, directing projects, leading and managing staff, and ensuring that projects are completed on time and within budget. He has expertise in management and operations, and training and education, and has substantive knowledge in law enforcement, homeland security, criminal justice, and public health issues. He provides direct assistance to clients through training and technical assistance, developing and implementing research and evaluation plans, and assisting in implementing change within organizations.