Police cameras are a tool, not a weapon.

As The Sun’s Alison Knezevich reported, a coalition of civil rights groups is raising concerns about police departments — including Baltimore city’s and county’s — that allow officers to review recordings from body-worn cameras prior to writing incident reports, pointing to studies that claim “watching video replays can easily change people’s memories, often subconsciously.”

I have no problem with the science cited by the coalition. I do have a problem, however, with the message the group is sending, which is that officers cannot be trusted to use body cameras in a constructive and truth-seeking manner.

This is about more than managing the use of technology. This is about managing people. Police officers, like the rest of us, want and deserve to be treated by their employers and others as if they are reliable and honest until proven otherwise. The consequences of treating employees as if they are inherently untrustworthy can destroy the morale of any organization, including a police department.

I have been a strong advocate for the accountability of public servants, including police officers. Lying is especially offensive, and there is nothing as worthless as a police officer who lacks credibility. The first deliberate misstatement on a report, affidavit for search warrant, etc., and an officer should be terminated. Immediately.

On the other hand, routinely pitting an officer’s memory-based report against camera footage in a purported quest for objective truth has a distinct gotcha feel to it, as if the object is to trip up the officer. The purpose of a body-worn camera is to assist an officer in recording and reporting facts. If an officer uses footage to refresh or correct his or her memory about the details of an incident, and notes that use in the report, so be it.

The vagaries of memory and eyewitness testimony are well-known, even for trained and experienced officers. We should encourage officers to use cameras as tools to compensate for those vagaries, rather than promote the use of cameras as weapons to turn against officers at trial, tearing down their credibility — which is exactly what civil rights advocates did two years ago, through a recommendation to prohibit officers from viewing recordings before writing reports.

It is a defense attorney’s dream to catch a discrepancy in an officer’s report, and use it when cross-examining the officer at trial. One innocent mistake, and the officer’s credibility on all other matters is called into question, fairness and justice notwithstanding.

The so-called “clean reporting” system now being recommended — in which an officer prepares one report before viewing footage, and another report after viewing footage — is no better. It would, however, be a boon to a defense attorney too lazy to prepare his or her own cross-examination, because the officer will already have laid it out in writing.

The policies and procedures adopted by the Baltimore Police Department strike a reasonable balance between respecting an officer’s trustworthiness and scrutinizing an officer’s actions when necessary to do so. An officer may use camera footage for assistance when preparing a report on a routine incident. If an officer is under criminal investigation or is involved in an in-custody death or serious use-of-force incident, however, the balance shifts, and the officer cannot view the footage before preparing a report.

I have great respect for organizations in the coalition like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The reality, however, is that they generally find themselves in an adversarial relationship with law enforcement, and their recommendations reflect that. It would be a serious mistake to replicate that adversarial relationship in the management of police departments.

The path back to credibility and trust will be a long one for departments like Baltimore’s and requires building relationships of mutual respect between officers and their commanders. To achieve that, departments cannot treat officers who have done no wrong as no more reliable or truthful than the criminals that they help take off the streets.

[Published as an op ed by The Baltimore Sun on November 28, 2017 but not posted to my blog until January 8, 2018. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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