Coalition urges limit on when officers can view own body camera footage

As more police departments use body cameras, a coalition of civil rights groups is raising concerns about officers’ unrestricted access to view their own footage, saying it can affect their memory of events.

The Baltimore County Police Department is among the agencies that allow the practice, according to a new scorecard by the The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and Upturn, a nonprofit focused on technology and social justice issues.

Baltimore County’s department was one of 75 nationwide whose policies were analyzed by the groups. The body camera policies were scored on eight criteria that the coalition says safeguard constitutional and civil rights.

The majority of departments surveyed — three out of four — let officers view footage without restriction. Officers under scrutiny for controversial incidents are often allowed to see footage before making a statement to investigators.

In a report called “The Illusion of Accuracy: How Body-Worn Camera Footage Can Distort Evidence,” the coalition points to psychological research that shows “watching video replays can easily change people’s memories, often subconsciously.”

“Because watching body-worn camera footage can alter an officer’s memory of an event, doing so will likely taint what officers write in their reports,” the coalition report states. “This practice will make it more difficult for investigators, internal affairs and courts to accurately assess what occurred and whether an officer’s actions were reasonable given what he or she perceived at the time.”

The Baltimore County policy lets officers review footage when writing reports. It also requires Internal Affairs to let officers and their representatives view all footage before making a statement during an administrative investigation.

“We are constantly reviewing our policy dealing with body-worn cameras for best practices,” county police spokesman Cpl. Shawn Vinson said. “If we see a need to change the policy, we will do so at that time.”

David Rose, second vice president of the Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, said officers should be allowed to view the footage. If a video and police report do not match, the officer can be held responsible for that, he said — whether they are testifying in court or being scrutinized by a superior at work.

“The officer’s job could be on the line if [the report] is not accurate,” Rose said.

For instance, Rose said, “when there’s a police pursuit, everybody’s body-camera video is reviewed for accuracy of the report.”

In Baltimore City, officers can view footage when writing reports for routine matters, according to the department’s stated policy. However, if they are involved in serious use-of-force incidents, an in-custody death or are under criminal investigation, they cannot do so before submitting reports and being interviewed. There are exceptions to that restriction, such as when an officer is being compelled to make a statement.

The civil rights groups are advocating for what they call a two-step “clean reporting” process — where an officer first writes a report without viewing footage, and then files a supplemental report after watching it.

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