When Police Videos Go Missing

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

When I interviewed him for my column this week, Fraternal Order of Policy Executive Director Jim Pasco differentiated citizen-shot video from police dash cam and surveillance video this way:

How do you know the video hasn’t been edited? How do we know what’s in the video hasn’t been taken out of context? With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time, so it’s admissible under the rules of evidence. That’s not the case with these cell phone videos.

Pasco may be right about the potential for citizen-shot video to be edited, though from what I understand that’s pretty easy to detect. The problem with Pasco’s statement is that there are too many stories where dash cam and surveillance camera video has gone missing, particularly in cases where there’s alleged police misconduct.

  • The Tennessean reports on its front page today that 1,300 dash cam videos from the Nashville police department have been erased. The police department blames the video camera vendor. The vendor blames the police department. More disturbing, DUI defense attorneys interviewed by the paper who had sought video of their clients’ arrests were told by the police department that the videos didn’t exist, not that they had been erased.
  • That’s actually the second story about missing or edited dash cam video to make news this week. The other is about a pregnant illegal immigrant who was arrested two years for a minor traffic violation, jailed, then, in a cruel practice that seems to be more common than I’d have thought, was forced to give birth while shackled. The officer who made the unusual arrest claimed there was no video of the incident. The woman’s lawyers were finally able to obtain the video last week, though portions of it are missing. The video opens with the officer telling the woman that his camera is running.
  • I noted in the column the case of Jack McKenna, the University of Maryland student whose beating at the hands of riot police after a basketball game last year was captured by several cell phones, but was mysteriously missing from the footage taken by a police surveillance camera pointed at the spot where the beating took place. The police officer in charge of the campus surveillance system is married to one of the officers who was disciplined in the McKenna case.
  • In another example, also from Prince George’s County, Maryland, in April 2005, TV reporter Andrea McCarren and a cameraman were pulled over by seven police cruisers as they followed a county official for a story on the misuse of public funds. McCarren later claimed in a lawsuit that she was abused during the stop, resulting in a torn rotator cuff and dislocated shoulder. Prince George’s County officials never gave McCarren’s attorneys dash cam video of the incident. Their excuse? They said all seven dashboard cameras were malfunctioning on the day McCarren was pulled over.
  • Last year, Birmingham police beat an already-unconscious driver after he crashed during a high-speed police chase. One officer turned the dash camera off in mid-beating. The police department then gave the district attorney’s office a version of the video with the police beating edited out.
  • In March, Justice Lee Ann Dauphinot on Texas’ 2nd Court of Appeals noted in a dissent the troubling frequency with which potentially exonerating dash camera footage seems to turn up missing:

Repeatedly, we are asked to review records of DWI stops during which there is no audio or video record of the event. Why do I believe there should be audio or audio and video record of the DWI stops? Because the law requires, and did so at the time of this stop, either an audio or audio and video record or the filing of a racial profiling report for each stop. See Tex Code Crim. Proc. art. 2.133-.135. The City of Fort Worth has conscientiously provided the means for complying with this law.

An appellate court should give no weight to testimony that is disproved by the objective record of the actual events. And I believe that the majority should address the issue of an officer’s intentionally disabling the audio recorder and testifying directly contrary to the audio record. …

At some point, courts must address the repeated failure of officers to use the recording equipment and their repeated inability to remember whether the car they were driving on patrol or to a DWI stop contained the video equipment the City of Fort Worth has been paying for. If the law requires recording to qualify for the exception to filing racial profiling reports, then is the officer not obligated to make sure that there is tape in a traditional video camera or that a digital camera is activated? When the actual recording conflicts with the officer’s testimony, the defendant’s testimony, or another witness’s testimony, a court cannot pretend that the emperor is wearing new clothes just because someone testifies that he is.

It’s commendable that more and more police departments are using dash cameras. I’m less enthusiastic about the increasing government surveillance of public spaces. But neither is a compelling reason to prevent citizens from protecting themselves by making their own recordings of their interactions with on-duty police officers.

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36 Responses to “When Police Videos Go Missing”

  1. #1 |  Boyd Durkin | 

    With dashboard cameras or police security video, the evidence is in the hands of law enforcement the entire time…

    WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT WE’RE WORRIED ABOUT!

    Why is this so hard for them to understand?

  2. #2 |  Waste93 | 

    Since some states require two party consent. Such as IL. Does that mean cops in those states do not have dash cams or are they doing video only since most two party consent laws cover audio but not video?

  3. #3 |  DarrenG | 

    The even bigger problem with Pasco’s response is that it’s baldly hypocritical in light of the main reason he gave for opposing citizen-shot video in the first place, namely privacy.

    If cops performing their duties in public spaces have a right to privacy (already a highly dubious contention, as you and others have correctly noted), this right is clearly violated by dashboard or other state-controlled cameras. Or any random private security camera which happens to capture on on-duty cop, for that matter…

    The evidentiary value of citizen-shot video is a completely separate concern and is a total red herring with regard to the legality of making the recording.

  4. #4 |  Dave | 

    Damn! I want to get a job in law enforcement, then whatever I say will be above reproach, whatever excuse or reason I give to justify my actions will be backed up by all of my co-workers and superiors.
    I can lie and it will just be part of my job.
    If I am having a bad day I can find some poor schmuck to take it out on.
    If I really screw up and kill someone the worst I can expect is a paid vacation.
    My safety would then be the most important thing in any situation, if I felt nervous I could use whatever force I felt necessary to neutralize that threat.
    I could do all kinds of things that would get me arrested or beaten as a “civilian” and demand respect for “putting my life on the line every day”.
    But I would have to give up my humanity, they don’t pay enough for that….

  5. #5 |  Marty | 

    it cracks me up when an official can keep a straight face and say something like, ‘unfortunately, due to an unfortunate accident, the dashcams on all seven police cars malfunctioned. that bitch is lying about being abused. trust us!’

  6. #6 |  Cyto | 

    The Birmingham incident is disturbing for an additional reason. In the video you see an officer dart in front of the fleeing vehicle to place the tire-puncture device. He dives out of the way and is brushed by the passing vehicle.


    Warren was charged with attempted murder of the Hoover officer, but later pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

    The cop jumped in the way of a speeding car – putting himself in harm’s way – and the defendant gets charged for attempted murder for that. Wow.

    Now, he is certainly guilty of a lot of crimes for fleeing as he did. He acted recklessly and did endanger others that happened to be on the roadway. But to pretend that he intentionally tried to run over the officer who jumped into the path of his car is ridiculous. Apparently ridiculous passes muster in the legal profession. I don’t know if 20 years is legit for his crimes in this case or not – there’s not nearly enough info for me to make that determination. I do know that charging him with attempted murder is an outright lie and any prosecutor and judge who would entertain such fiction given these circumstances should be out of the profession, at a minimum.

  7. #7 |  LOLcat | 

    Hmmmm seems to me the obvious solution is to make all police cam videos instantly updated to the cloud.

  8. #8 |  paranoiastrksdp | 

    I’m sure Jim Pasco is on his way here to tell us all that the dash cams police departments around the country use malfunction frequently because they are cheaply made. It will be followed by an appeal to give departments nationwide more money for dash cams.

  9. #9 |  Bob | 

    #6, Cyto.
    “The Birmingham incident is disturbing for an additional reason. In the video you see an officer dart in front of the fleeing vehicle to place the tire-puncture device. He dives out of the way and is brushed by the passing vehicle.”

    And the reason the chase started? A cop thought he looked suspicious and wanted to question him.

    He wasn’t wanted, he wasn’t seen committing a crime, it was just a basic profiling stop.

    He was no saint, but there wasn’t probable cause to warrant a high speed chase that endangered the lives of dozens of other people, either.

  10. #10 |  Glenn Dale | 

    Don’t forget about Eric Rachner, the Seattle Cyber Security guy.

    See http://www.seattlepi.com/local/418746_video.html

  11. #11 |  David | 

    I’m sorry, I can’t get past the fact that these “people” saw a man thrown from the window of a crashing, rolling car, completely unrestrained, hitting his head hard enough to KO him (and do god-knows-what to his neck and spine), and without a second’s hesitation decided to start bludgeoning him with clubs.

  12. #12 |  Rhayader | 

    Is there any form of evidence that, given the proper combination of talent, resources, and connections, can’t be manufactured or altered? I always figured that was a given — that any presented evidence should be considered skeptically and objectively.

    That a tape could perhaps be digitally altered is not a unique risk in any sense of the word. Just more bullshit issue-dodging.

  13. #13 |  Bob | 

    #10 David:
    “I’m sorry, I can’t get past the fact that these “people” saw a man thrown from the window of a crashing, rolling car, completely unrestrained, hitting his head hard enough to KO him (and do god-knows-what to his neck and spine), and without a second’s hesitation decided to start bludgeoning him with clubs.”

    Not only that, but the first meathead to show up was in such a hurry to get the beating started, he slipped and fell to his knees in his hurry to get there first.

    Let’s recap. Guy has a considerable record of shit like robbery, receiving stolen property, and even escape. A cop sees him, and on instinct… decides he’s bad and tries to stop him. He runs. Wait! Where’s the probable cause? A cop’s clairvoyance?

    Evading should have netted him a bench warrant and a visit at his work or home in the next few days.

    Instead, over half a dozen cop cars get involved in a blazing chase to stop this um… brazen laugher-atter of their AUTHORITAH (Remember, no probable cause that a crime had been committed outside of running from a cop) They risk the lives of dozens of motorists to “Git this guy”, then deliver a beatdown RIGHT IN FRONT of one of their own cameras.

    That’s right! These are the people heroically protecting us and our constitutional rights from the ‘bad guys’.

    Are they in jail? Oh fuck no! 5 of them got fired, they’re probably working in your town as cops right now.

  14. #14 |  Prosecutors And Head Of FOP Defend Arrests Of People Filming Cops - Page 6 - INGunOwners | 

    [...] erased. The numbers speak to a problem with the custody chain where police videos are concerned. When Police Videos Go Missing | The Agitator __________________ [...]

  15. #15 |  BSK | 

    It seems like there should be an easy technological fix to this. Have all dashboard video backup to a blackbox-style device accessible only by a third party. Or something of that style. I’m sure the technology is out there.

  16. #16 |  craig | 

    You left out the situation involving brett darrow which made national headlines…the dashboard camera was missing there too…

    http://drx.typepad.com/psychotherapyblog/2007/09/brett-darrow-me.html

  17. #17 |  Matt | 

    LOLcat: “Hmmmm seems to me the obvious solution is to make all police cam videos instantly updated to the cloud.”

    That, along with millisecond coordinates from a GPS stitched to every cop’s forehead.

  18. #18 |  Mannie | 

    There’s an answer to the issue of police destruction or suppression of evidence, but it would require the courts to actually be an independent agency, not just part of the Big Prison Industry.

    It’s the established legal doctrine of spoilation. If it can be shown that the police destroyed evidence, then they are not allowed to argue on the basis of what should have been shown in that evidence. If they “lost” the video, then the video shows whatever you say it shows, and they can’t even say otherwise.

    Yeah, I know. I ain’t holdin’ my breath.

  19. #19 |  Mannie | 

    The other answer is for jurors to never believe a cop without real evidence.

    That’s why they’ll never allow me within a thousand yards of a jury room.

    Damn, I wish you could edit posts, here.

  20. #20 |  george cotz | 

    In my local jurisdiction, the police commonly deny that events were recorded explaining that the car in question was not so equipped. When I made a request for identification of all cars equipped with dash cams under our FOI law, I was denied on the grounds that it would compromise police investigations.

  21. #21 |  croaker | 

    Videotape of security thugs choking deaf shopper for not hearing the theft alarm.

    http://carlosmiller.com/2010/08/12/video-exposes-abusive-forever-21-security-guards/

    The deaf shopper is reportedly in jail facing felony charges. But not shoplifting. Seems as he and his friend had receipts for everything.

  22. #22 |  Nando | 

    I’d L-O-V-E to be called to jury duty on one of these cases where the police video goes missing. I’d gladly give up a few days of work just to ensure that this injustice doesn’t affect someone’s life adversely.

  23. #23 |  I Want … | Truth and Justice For All | 

    [...] Balko lists a number of incidents where video made by cops — you know, from the likes of dashboard cameras — has [...]

  24. #24 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Ahh yes, the disappearing video.
    In Florida, my lawyer told me she was gonna get it.
    Then she told me the prosecutor “would do bad things” to me if I kept
    asking for it.
    Then I fired her right in front of the judge, sued her (I won) and filed a bar complaint.
    I know about “missing” videos all too well, glad the issue has gone viral.

    There’s this case Brady where the defendant does not have to
    prove Bad Faith if the video exists and they don’t turn it over.
    But if the video is “inadvertently” (yeah right) destroyed
    then you have to prove Bad Faith? How? You can not. Ever.
    So the cops rely on this flaw in the system. If it’s inconvenient, they
    just destroy the video. Then they can circumvent Brady.

  25. #25 |  StrongStyle81 | 

    Pasco stated that we should have more faith and trust in our authority figures. Perhaps someone should carefully explain to him in small words that it would be easier for us to trust the police if they stopped beating the shit out of us, arresting us for no reason, murdering random black people, damaging and seizing our property and killing our dogs.

  26. #26 |  Jim | 

    Email Jim Pasco at jpasco@fop.net and tell him that he is wrong.

  27. #27 |  Michael Pack | 

    Of cousre they don’t want a recording in dui stops.Many,if not most,arrested for dui have done no harm and are not driving recklessly.Why do you think they demand breath or blood tests?Without such evidence they can even prove reckless op,which is what dui should be covered under any way.I also would include sleepiness,texting,eating and drinking,ect..

  28. #28 |  Dixon | 

    I’m reminded of a story I told Radley which he posted here some time ago (http://www.theagitator.com/2007/04/20/tales-of-a-dallas-poker-raid/). I was at a poker game where the police claimed to have undercover video of mne gambling (it was bullshit…I was there with a friend who cooked for the poker players)…A&E “Dallas SWAT” tv show was there filming as well. We subpoenaed the video from city of Dallas and Granada Entertainment and were told no video existed of the incident. That was until, of course, we showed up for my suppression hearing and a cop was there to testify to having watched the undercover video THE NIGHT BEFORE the hearing.

  29. #29 |  Marc | 

    For the competitive aviation sport of gliding all pilots carry small “secure” flight data recorders, which record time, location, altitude, typically once per second, and can retain hundreds of hours of data. These devices are used to score contests, establish eligibility for world records, penalize pilots who enter prohibited airspace, etc. The devices incorporate various physical and electronic security measures, including internal switches which, if the unit is opened or tampered with, erase the electronic “secret” keys required for correct operation. Flight logs are digitally signed by the units upon completion of each flight, publicly available software can verify the integrity of any downloaded flight log based on its digital signature. The flight logs contain sequence numbers, the serial number of the recording unit, etc. An attempt to tamper with the content of a flight log can be readily detected, as the digital signature would no longer match the contents. It would take a fair amount of resources, plus electrical engineering, programming, and cryptographic knowledge to forge a valid signature for a faked or modified flight log.

    These devices are manufactured (at a cost of a few hundred US dollars each) for a silly sport that likely few here have ever heard of, does not involve any cash prizes, and about the only thing one wins is prestige within a tiny community.

    The same thing could be done with dash cams, providing courts and defendants a reasonable level of assurance that the contents of videos in evidence haven’t been edited, determine if there are missing videos in a sequence, etc. Of course, that would require a legal system which actually cares about the rights of the accused…

  30. #30 |  Lee | 

    It’s not really a police video, but the Costco video in the Las Vegas shooting of Erik Scott is still AWOL

    http://www.ktnv.com/Global/story.asp?S=12920574

  31. #31 |  Round up in professionalism... - Page 8 - Mutha Fuckin' Magic Up In This Bitch | 

    [...] Re: Round up in professionalism… When Police Videos Go Missing | The Agitator [...]

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  34. #34 |  Erik Scott’s Family Drops Lawsuit | The Agitator | 

    [...] how critical portions of surveillance video often turn up missing, isn’t it? Digg it |  reddit |  del.icio.us |  [...]

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  36. #36 |  nvwatchdog | 

    Nevada Highway Patrol corruption, dash cam tampering & retaliation – The Mike Weston story http://youtu.be/cFX8bjPCWlo TIME STAMP IRREGULARITIES DISPLAYED ON ORIGINAL TAPE Hour 5 Minute 11 Incident begins Minute 10 Minute 09 Does not display Minute 08 Minute 07 75 seconds Minute 06 55 seconds Minute 05 15 seconds Minute 04 68 seconds Minute 03 45 seconds Minute 02 25 seconds Minute 01 55 seconds Hour 4 Minute 59 40 seconds Minute 58 15 seconds Minute 59 Displays again / 40 seconds / Different content Minute 57 85 seconds Minute 56 70 seconds Minute 55 25 seconds Minute 54 55 seconds Minute 53 23 seconds Minute 52 95 seconds Minute 51 Does not display Minute 50 80 seconds Minute 49 40 seconds Minute 48 40 seconds Minute 47 55 seconds Minute 46 40 seconds Minute 45 Does not display Minute 46 25 seconds Minute 45 Does not display Minute 44 25 seconds Minute 43 55 seconds Minute 42 25 seconds Minute 41 Incident ends

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