Criminal Justice

When Police Videos Go Missing


When I interviewed him for my column this week, Fraternal Order of Policy Executive Director Jim Pasco differentiated citizen-shot video from police dash cam and surveillance video this way:

How do you know the video hasn't been edited? How do we know what's in the video hasn't been taken out of context? With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it's admissible under the rules of evidence. That's not the case with these cell phone videos.

Pasco may be right about the potential for citizen-shot video to be edited, though from what I understand that's pretty easy to detect. The problem with Pasco's statement is that there are too many stories where dash cam and surveillance camera video has gone missing, particularly in cases where there's alleged police misconduct.

  • The Tennessean reports on its front page today that 1,300 dash cam videos from the Nashville police department have been erased. The police department blames the video camera vendor. The vendor blames the police department. More disturbing, DUI defense attorneys interviewed by the paper who had sought video of their clients' arrests were told by the police department that the videos didn't exist, not that they had been erased.
  • That's actually the second story about missing or edited dash cam video to make news this week. The other is about a pregnant illegal immigrant who was arrested two years for a minor traffic violation, jailed, then, in a cruel practice that seems to be more common than I'd have thought, was forced to give birth while shackled. The officer who made the unusual arrest claimed there was no video of the incident. The woman's lawyers were finally able to obtain the video last week, though portions of it are missing. The video opens with the officer telling the woman that his camera is running.
  • I noted in the column the case of Jack McKenna, the University of Maryland student whose beating at the hands of riot police after a basketball game last year was captured by several cell phones, but was mysteriously missing from the footage taken by a police surveillance camera pointed at the spot where the beating took place. The police officer in charge of the campus surveillance system is married to one of the officers who was disciplined in the McKenna case.
  • In another example, also from Prince George's County, Maryland, in April 2005, TV reporter Andrea McCarren and a cameraman were pulled over by seven police cruisers as they followed a county official for a story on the misuse of public funds. McCarren later claimed in a lawsuit that she was abused during the stop, resulting in a torn rotator cuff and dislocated shoulder. Prince George's County officials never gave McCarren's attorneys dash cam video of the incident. Their excuse? They said all seven dashboard cameras were malfunctioning on the day McCarren was pulled over.
  • Last year, Birmingham police beat an already-unconscious driver after he crashed during a high-speed police chase. One officer turned the dash camera off in mid-beating. The police department then gave the district attorney's office a version of the video with the police beating edited out.
  • In March, Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot on Texas' 2nd Court of Appeals noted in a dissent the troubling frequency with which potentially exonerating dash camera footage seems to turn up missing:

Repeatedly, we are asked to review records of DWI stops during which there is no audio or video record of the event. Why do I believe there should be audio or audio and video record of the DWI stops? Because the law requires, and did so at the time of this stop, either an audio or audio and video record or the filing of a racial profiling report for each stop. See Tex Code Crim. Proc. art. 2.133-.135. The City of Fort Worth has conscientiously provided the means for complying with this law.

An appellate court should give no weight to testimony that is disproved by the objective record of the actual events. And I believe that the majority should address the issue of an officer's intentionally disabling the audio recorder and testifying directly contrary to the audio record. …

At some point, courts must address the repeated failure of officers to use the recording equipment and their repeated inability to remember whether the car they were driving on patrol or to a DWI stop contained the video equipment the City of Fort Worth has been paying for. If the law requires recording to qualify for the exception to filing racial profiling reports, then is the officer not obligated to make sure that there is tape in a traditional video camera or that a digital camera is activated? When the actual recording conflicts with the officer's testimony, the defendant's testimony, or another witness's testimony, a court cannot pretend that the emperor is wearing new clothes just because someone testifies that he is.

It's commendable that more and more police departments are using dash cameras. I'm less enthusiastic about the increasing government surveillance of public spaces. But neither is a compelling reason to prevent citizens from protecting themselves by making their own recordings of their interactions with on-duty police officers.

NEXT: The Original Mad Man

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  1. The problem with Pasco’s statement is that there are too many stories where dash cam and surveillance camera video has gone missing…

    The problem with Pasco’s statement is that it’s a free fucking country and – potential to be edited or not, potential for admissibility or not – the recording of public events is not something the state can rightfully stop.

      1. Plus, it is admissible. It might get challenged, but its not like a lie detector test.

  2. E-mail a copy of this post to Fraternal Order of Policy Executive Director Jim Pasco telling him you’ll be happy to post his response.

  3. The criminal entity of Virginia does this all the time:


    They did it to me and my NORML affiliated lawyer Marvin Miller LET THEM GET AWAY WITH IT OVER MY WISHES

  4. The “Rules of Evidence” that are required for dashboard videos exist to protect the accused from wrongful convictions.

    Cell phone cameras (assuming they aren’t being used by prosecutors), don’t require the same rules to meet the standard of “reasonable doubt”.

  5. Obviously, what we need are hundreds of millions of floating drones that tape everything in public. And, of course, we all get access to the drones.

    1. We have that. They are called camera phones. The issue is they are not controlled by the state.

      1. If you use your camera phone, they’re going to either (1) prosecuting you for making a cop feel uncomfortable or (2) shoot you.

        1. So, we need camera phones and guns. The phones are to prove us right when we say we shot the sheriff, but we swear it was in self defense.

          1. But…did you shoot the dep-u-ty?

  6. With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it’s admissible under the rules of evidence.




  7. Cop porn: Check out the illegal giving birth in bondage.

    Popcorn: To be enjoyed while watching the ‘lost’ tapes.

  8. “Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot on Texas’ 2nd Court of Appeals noted in a dissent the troubling frequency with which potentially exonerating dash camera footage seems to turn up missing”

    DISSENT!!! That is, with outrageous and irrefutable evidence that police are lying and willfully thwarting justice, only one justice thinks this is bad…
    Like I have said maybe a zillion times, why do we give judges a pass on this stuff, why aren’t the justices who allow this stuff excoriated???

    1. They do not get a pass from me.

      1. You don’t matter.

    2. some people don’t vote

      1. And most of the rest vote for the wrong candidates.

        1. Judges are not always elected, either. That varies by state.

  9. This could be fixed sooo easily, so that cops always turned on their cameras. Judges could just start directing juries that in case where officer testimony differs from the defendant(s), the defendant’s testimony should be the presumption of truth.

    Considering there’s no way a single one of our Bill of RIghts could make it through Congress (and most wouldn’t get through a State Legislature), I see a lot of foot dragging on anything that gives citizens more of a presumption of innocence.

    1. That’s waaaaay too extreme. Getting rid of laws against recording police using equipment under your own control should be sufficient.

      1. What, Tulpa? If it is one State member versus one citizen (cop v. defendant), the citizen’s testimony should be preferred, especially because of “reasonable doubt”.

        1. Even where the citizen is a known pathological liar?

          You can’t just create an across-the-board presumption that the cop in every case is lying and the defendant in every case is telling the truth. That would eliminate one of the primary functions of the trial court – to consider and weigh all the evidence submitted, on both sides – including the credibility of the witnesses.

          1. This.

            There actually are real, dishonest to everybody (even their own sweet mothers), lying, criminal assholes out there.

            Sure, they may be hard needles to find in the haystacks of the wrongly accused and rightly accused of that which should not be a crime, but they exist and a legal system that fails to do anything about them would be just as broken as the one we have…

  10. Add the city of San Luis Obispo to your list of “mysteriously” disappearing police video tapes….cost them a couple hundred grand….

    And then there’s the San Luis Obispo Sheriffs, where luckily the tapes didn’t disappear!

  11. “An appellate court should give no weight to testimony that is disproved by the objective record of the actual events.”

    Who you gonna believe – the police or those anti-police hippy dippy reality shifting orbs stuck in your skull above your nose through which you supposedly “see” events by the reflection of photons. C’mon – better to just believe the police.

  12. An appellate court should give no weight to testimony that is disproved by the objective record of the actual events.

    Is this instruction given before or after “Remember to keep breathing.”?

    1. After.

  13. Is it paranoid to take time out to learn how your wife’s camera/video phone works and them make her learn yours because some day she might need to video tape her husband getting arrested or trying to strangle a cop to death with his own penis (assuming the cop is male).

  14. As long as the Fraternal Order of Police is in existence, there will never be a fair and just law enforcement in the United States. Getting rid of it won’t instantly solve the problem, but you’d be eliminating a huge enabler.

  15. The Birmingham incident is disturbing for an additional reason. In the video you see an officer dart in front of the fleeing vehicle to place the tire-puncture device. He dives out of the way and is brushed by the passing vehicle.

    Warren was charged with attempted murder of the Hoover officer, but later pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

    The cop jumped in the way of a speeding car – putting himself in harm’s way – and the defendant gets charged for attempted murder for that. Wow.

    Now, he is certainly guilty of a lot of crimes for fleeing as he did. He acted recklessly and did endanger others that happened to be on the roadway. But to pretend that he intentionally tried to run over the officer who jumped into the path of his car is ridiculous. Apparently ridiculous passes muster in the legal profession. I don’t know if 20 years is legit for his crimes in this case or not – there’s not nearly enough info for me to make that determination. I do know that charging him with attempted murder is an outright lie and any prosecutor and judge who would entertain such fiction given these circumstances should be out of the profession, at a minimum.

  16. Ok, Balko. I’ll bet you can’t name ten more incidents!

  17. Police videos are not “admissible because they are out of the control of law enforcement personnel.” They are admissible because evidence is submitted to the court that the video in a given case is a reliable and true record of the event at issue. In a similar way, cellphone or camera videos shot by citizens can be evaluated for reliability and, if there is reason to believe they were edited or are otherwise questionable, they can be barred from evidence on a case-by-case basis. The mere fact that there is a potential for editing and doctoring is not a ground for making them all illegal.

    1. I’m afraid you’d never make a decent prosecutor or police officer. Of course the potential for tampering means that tampering always occurs. Unless of course, it’s we, law enforcement, who would never, I repeat neeeeever do something like that. Trust us. Really.

    2. How do you know the video hasn’t been edited? How do we know what’s in the video hasn’t been taken out of context?

      I love this. Earth to Jim, police videos can be tampered with, too. It’s not like you open up a piece of video-editing software and get a little dialog that says you can’t run it if you’re a cop.

  18. Randy’s piece, packed with facts, underscores why need a market based, competitive model of administering justice.

    Only irrational fools and statist tools would think otherwise. All of recorded history demonstrates that the monopolization of anything is bad news. Yet, the statist suck-ups, bereft of any hard evidence, turn to the adolescent tactic of baseles speculation and ad-hominem attacks to justify the CHAOS and MAYHEM which we now have here in this socialist cess pool called the united socialist states of amerika.

    1. Maybe you could get the fact of his goddamn first name right.

    2. libmike,

      Let’s say a renegade plumber came to your home and said he had an idea for a revolutionarily different type of plumbing system. The only problem is, this plumbing system hasn’t ever been tried before, except perhaps 50 years ago in northern Quebec, but scholars dispute whether it was the same plumbing system.

      So, before you let him rip out all every pipe, toilet, and plumbing fixture in your house, you look at the very vague plans he has and see a lot of potential for leaks. When you confront him with your concerns, at first he says, well, it’s possible that those leaks will be prevented by something that’s not explicitly laid out in the plans. When you continue to express concerns, he accuses you of “baseless speculation”.

      How are you going to react to this fellow, mike?

      1. Well, first of all, I must salute you on a very good hypothetical.

        Obviously, as you present the facts, I am going to press the plumber for more. I would insist upon further development / explanantion of how his plumbing system would operate, etc.

        However, permit me to expand upon your facts a little. Under your scenario, the plumber comes to my house unsolicited? Yes? If so, is it fair to assume that I do not have any concerns or problems with the operation of the plumbing?

        What if I had been experiecning systemic problems with my plumbing such that shit was happening every day. Let us add that each and every time I attempted to fix the plumbing situation, all the plumbers applied and implemented the same remedies and told me that such remedies were the only ones permitted by the plumbing code.

        Let us add that various family members, friends and social invitees had gotten sick, with death resulting in some instatnces, as a direct and proximate result of all the sewerage and burst pipes and the failure of all the previous plumbers I had engaged to scuttle the acepted techniques.

        Then what?

  19. Has anyone noticed a pattern where those with power and authority use that power and authority in their own interest and at the expense of those without power and authority? Have you noticed how this pattern permeates our existence? Jeeze, I wonder what could possibly be the fix for that??? Maybe it might be not to give some individuals particular power and authority over others.

  20. How many minutes are missing from the videos?

  21. click on my name,you can find cheap watches

  22. What would be nice is if your cell’s camera could stream straight to the cloud in real time, even if the resolution was poorer by doing so. Confiscating the phone after that would be meaningless.

    1. USTREAM might be what you’re looking for.

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