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Police Body Cameras: What Defendants, Victims Need to Know

By Brett Snider, Esq. | Last updated on

Police body cameras are being put forward as a possible solution to the growing problem of police brutality and misconduct in America.

President Obama announced Monday that the White House would call for $75 million to be allocated over the next three years to purchase 50,000 recording devices. According to The Washington Post, after incidents like the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, "there is no longer a question" about whether police body cameras will become the new standard.

But what should defendants and victims of police misconduct know about police body cameras?

The NYPD Was Already Ordered to Use Them

After a federal judge ruled that the stop-and-frisk tactics of the New York Police Department (NYPD) violated suspects' constitutional rights, she ordered broad reforms of police policy, including the use of "body-worn cameras" for specific officers. According to the New York Daily News, the NYPD had created a body-camera pilot program in response to the court order, but it isn't slated to begin until January.

Now with the killings of Michael Brown and chokehold victim Eric Garner on the forefront, the NYPD has agreed to start their body-camera program on Friday. Only nine officers will be participating in this pilot program, which will cover three areas of New York City -- including the patrol area where Garner was killed.

Like Dashcams, Footage Won't Be Easy to Get

Assuming that police body cameras are comprehensively integrated into police forces nationwide, you'll still likely need to make an administrative request and/or subpoena to the police department for a particular officer's body camera footage.

Police departments typically erase or destroy footage from dashcams after a certain amount of time when no official request is made. If similar practices are followed for police body cameras, a request for body camera footage months after an arrest has occurred may be too late.

Law Enforcement Still Legally Protected

Video or no video, victims of police brutality will still have to overcome officers' qualified immunity to successfully sue for injuries or deaths caused by the police. This burden of proof is on the victims, not the cops, and requires showing that an officer intentionally violated a person's civil rights.

Even in the case of criminal charges, a trial jury may acquit or a grand jury may refuse to indict if jurors believe the officer acted "reasonably" under the circumstances.

The presence of video footage didn't produce a criminal indictment in Garner's death, much in the same way that the presence of police dashcams have not thwarted police brutality. But perhaps they are a step in the right direction.

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