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OPINION: Body-Camera Video Evidence Prosecution Transparency


Body-Camera Video Evidence Prosecution Transparency

By Jill Ravitch, Sonoma County District Attorney

Body camera video evidence is a new medium we are all grappling with. Calls for transparency and review of law enforcement procedures are appropriate, and I agree that the public has a right to know how public safety is being carried out. Whether the video evidence should be released for public scrutiny is up to the law enforcement agency that collected it, not me. While we receive video that captures criminal activity, the cameras are also capturing much more. Imagine that a crime has occurred on your street and police are conducting a neighborhood check for witnesses. You open your door to an officer with the camera running. Your address, the interior of your residence, your kids, and perhaps more are on that video. And you are not even a victim of any crime. Now, imagine you are at the hospital being treated and the officer is videotaping someone there. Why should these videos, provided to defense to prepare for a criminal case, be posted on Youtube? We receive hours of video in many, if not most, of the cases we review. We do not have the resources to watch and edit each of these videos to redact privileged information. That is why we ask that defendants agree the video they receive will be used only in the criminal case. By doing so we can provide access sooner so that they can address the charges more effectively. This request does not impact what the police do with the video. They are the owners of the material – we are simply allowed to use it for prosecution efforts.

My mission as district attorney is to hold the guilty accountable, protect the innocent and preserve the dignity of victims and their families. My office is charged with seeking truth and justice in a professional manner while maintaining the highest ethical standards. In order to carry out this mission we review about 23,000 criminal investigations from law enforcement agencies throughout the county each year, and decide what cases to charge and how to handle those matters as they move through the courts. 

Once we charge someone with a crime we provide access to all material relied upon through the criminal discovery process so that they may mount a complete defense. This includes police reports, photographs, audio and video recordings, medical records, forensic analysis reports, as well as other types of evidence. We may redact information to protect vulnerable victims, with children and sexual assault victims as examples. We may request protective orders so that the material will only be used in the defense of the action. Keep in mind that we are seeking the agreement of the defense for this limited protection.  Our actions only impact the criminal case, and are supported by existing laws. The material legally belongs to the law enforcement agency that conducted the investigation, and much of it is obtained by defense directly from the agency. We use the materials we receive in a court of law where rules of evidence govern admissibility to make sure it’s relevant and credible.  If a defendant objects to any step we take he or she may petition the court to deny our request. Also, this is a request for an agreement in exchange for actual possession of the video. We will always provide access to the video so that the defendant and counsel may view it in its entirety.

Questions about police practices and access to bodycam video are not impacted by this effort to protect the innocent in the criminal proceeding. An aggrieved party, or interested member of the public can go to the source of the video and request it through various methods. This restriction we seek is only to protect the innocent in a criminal action, not to thwart review of police practices. I welcome any review of law enforcement procedures and practices. It ensures accountability and hopefully builds better trust between public safety agencies and the public.