Cops and Cameras

By Collin County Criminal Defense Lawyer Jeremy Rosenthal

(972) 369-0577

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Cell phone video cameras in the hands of people at all levels of society have triggered dramatic changes in law enforcement over the past few years.

Police have been utilizing video and audio equipment for decades, normally affixed to their squad car.  The video has always been a great aid to both law enforcement and the citizens accused of offenses because it renders a clear and accurate depiction of what went on at the scene of the arrest. It protects officers from unfounded claims of brutality and harassment but also protects people from exaggerated criminal charges or claims in court.

So why is what we see on video now so much more dramatic than we’ve ever seen before?  Simply do a google search for “police brutality caught on tape” and you’ll see video after video of questionable conduct (or sometimes flagrant) police mis-conduct.

The simple answer is police are no longer in control of who, what, when and how incidents are video taped.  The cameraman has changed.

A squad car video has a limited lateral range.  For instance, when an officer has to leave his or her car and go to chase a suspect on foot or enter a house during a domestic call, the camera can’t follow though audio is often still available.  An officer has a good idea when they’re on and off camera based where they’re standing in relation to the car.

Police do have limited discretion when it comes to what gets recorded.  Virtually all squad cars cameras turn on when the over-head lights are triggered (barring technical malfunctions or very small police agencies).  Sometimes an officer turns off the audio recording.  Though this may be a no-no, it is very difficult to prove and most jurors are indifferent to such happenings.

Cell phone video cameras from citizens can record a police officer at any time, at any place and from any angle.  Unfortunately for police, the videos where people record an officer being professional and doing outstanding work don’t go viral.  The fact an officer can wake up any morning knowing by the end of their shift they could be on the cover must be undoubtedly unnerving.

Prudent officers must realize this new reality and should be on their best behavior at all times — not just when they know they’re actions are being recorded by their own equipment.  The vast majority already are.

*Jeremy Rosenthal is Board Certified in Criminal Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and licensed by the Supreme Court of Texas.  He is a Texas Super Lawyer as designated by Thomson Reuters.


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