SUNDAY EDITION | LMPD body camera video becoming 'best' evidence - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | LMPD body camera video becoming 'best' evidence in court cases

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – When police arrived at the Medallion Court apartment complex in Newburg last May, they did so with guns drawn.

The officers jumped out of their cruisers, cursing and shouting for several men to get on the ground before immediately handcuffing and searching them, body-worn camera footage shows.

But according to a motion by a defense attorney for one of the men, Quentin Robinson, Louisville Metro Police officers had “zero reason to believe a crime had been” or was about to be committed, and the videos proved they were arrested and searched without probable cause or being read their rights.

Without the police body camera videos, there would have been no recorded account of the incident. Robinson likely would have likely pleaded guilty to amended charges rather than face trial, defense attorney Julie Kaelin said.

Instead, prosecutors later dismissed criminal trespassing and drug charges against Robinson.

“The citation and all other available material made it seem as though that was a proper investigation and arrest,” Kaelin said. “The body camera evidence shows the officers did not conduct any kind of investigation before putting everyone in custody. … They didn’t even know if (the men) were doing anything wrong.”

It has been nearly two years since Louisville police began outfitting several hundred officers with body cameras, part of an effort to provide an indisputable record of police actions that safeguard citizens and officers alike.

Indeed, video from the cameras is now sometimes the most important evidence in court cases, replacing what had, at times, just been a credibility contest between police and defendants.

While Kaelin also has a pending case in which she says body cameras show police improperly charging a man for driving under the influence -- without giving him a breathalyzer or any field sobriety tests -- she said the majority of her cases show the police account is correct.

“Body cameras are not just something that can help my clients, they’re also something that can be a really good source of evidence for the police and the state against my client,” she said.

Kaelin says she has had clients tell her they were improperly arrested or cases against were weak, only to watch the body cam video and realize police and prosecutors were correct in their charges – allowing the attorney to better advise defendants on what they should do.

Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell said body camera videos are “the single best piece of evidence-producing equipment that I’ve seen in decades in the court system,” allowing prosecutors to make charging decisions based on what they see and hear, not just what someone tells them.

“There is no better substitute for a camera that captures the event as it occurs,” O’Connell said.

He said videos have not only altered charges but actually stopped prosecutors from filing any charges after a review of what the cameras captured.

And the footage often helps cases get resolved sooner because of fewer disputed facts between prosecutors and defense attorneys – sometimes bolstering or contradicting what witnesses or police say happened.

There is no data locally showing precise figures on the impact of body camera footage on criminal cases, such as whether it has led to fewer trials.

A 2014 U.S. Justice Department report noted that studies in the United Kingdom, where officers have been using body cameras for more than a decade, have shown an increase in cases resolved through guilty pleas rather than trials.

Body camera flaws

For police, who have nationally come under fire for improper shootings and alleged misconduct in recent years, the body cameras “give that air of transparency to what we do as police officers,” said LMPD Lt. Col. Robert Schroeder.

Some police officers have told WDRB the cameras have been a factor in a decline in traffic tickets and arrests over the past few years, as they are nervous about supervisors and citizens scrutinizing each interaction. 

Schroeder acknowledged there has been an adjustment period, especially for veteran officers, and officers are “under a microscope now,” but “in the end, officers realize it’s going to help,” not only with criminal cases but in times when citizens file complaints against police.

In recent years, internal police investigators have showed people filing complaints against officers the body camera footage to prove an officer had not done anything wrong.

“It helps as far as communication with the department and community in my opinion,” said Professional Standards Unit Lt. Josh Hasch.

“It gives us more information as how to rule on a case,” he said. “The body cam footage definitely provides a pretty clear record of what occurred.”

In many departments across the nation, use-of-force complaints have dropped in the years following the adoption of body cameras for officers.

And the cameras have an added benefit in certain cases, such as domestic violence, where a witness may change his or her mind about talking with police or testifying against someone, possibly out of fear.

“The body camera will allow the court, jurors, prosecutor to see exactly what happened at that time, see what the condition of the victim was, what the emotions were, what the scene was, allow those statements to be captured to help that victim later on,” said Schroeder, who trained most of the Louisville officers on how to use body cameras.

Schroeder said the cameras have been especially important because of controversial police shootings, allowing the department to almost immediately release video showing what officers saw and how they acted.

Just last week, for example, LMPD provided the body cam video of a March 1 police shooting of 38-year-old Bruce Warrick. The video shows three officers searching an abandoned house, repeatedly identifying themselves.

When an officer comes upon a mattress leaning against a wall, she sees Warrick standing behind it and fires almost immediately. Warrick is listed in critical condition.

Louisville is no stranger to controversial officer shootings in past years.

In 2002, 50-year-old James Earl Taylor was shot 11 times after he was handcuffed, with police saying he lunged at officers with a box cutter, despite the restraints. Two years later, an officer shot 19-year-old Michael Newby in the back during an undercover drug buy gone bad.

“We had a very tension-filled feeling in the community about not understanding what went on with those shootings,” said long-time activist Christopher 2X, who has worked with the families of three people shot by police where body camera video has been released. 

“Since body cameras, at least the public gets the sense of what’s going on in real time, and that helps. The video has added a set of neutral eyes to the equation. It helps diffuse the suspicion around these shootings.”

The shootings, however, have exposed flaws in how the body cameras are utilized.

In the Aug. 8 shooting death of 57-year-old Darnell Wicker, one of the three officers involved did not turn on his body camera before Wicker was killed. The angles of the other cameras did not center on Wicker.

Schroeder said most officers wear a collar-mounted body camera that can be unstable, leading to choppy video. That problem has been improved for the next generation of cameras, he said.

And he acknowledges that officers sometimes forget to turn on the cameras, especially in fast-developing incidents.

The department is also looking into new technology that would allow for the cameras to be turned on automatically, such as when an officer’s cruiser lights are activated.

The pilot program for LMPD started with one division in June 2015. There are now about 900 officers with body cameras; those with the K9 unit do not have them yet.

“It’s changed the department amazingly well in the area of transparency,” Schroeder said. “We’re able to show the public what happened in an incident. … The camera is a neutral party. It shows people what the facts are. Right or wrong, the facts are the facts.”

Kaelin, the defense attorney who has had run-ins with police over some issues, has applauded the use of the cameras – and the quickness with which they are turned over to attorneys or made public.

“It’s something that can protect officers and protect the public,” she said. “I think it’s a positive for everyone.”

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