Body-Worn Camera Video Evidence

The Justice Management Institute recently completed a study of the use and implementation of body-worn cameras and their impact as video evidence in criminal cases in Baltimore County, Maryland. The project objectives included the following:

  1. Evaluate the impact of body-worn camera (BWC) video evidence on the State’s Attorney and Public Defender workloads, screening and discovery processes, and trial preparation.
  2. Assess the impact of BWC video evidence on court case processing delays, generally, and on postponements, and trial readiness, specifically.
  3. Recommend policies and procedures that will help streamline and alleviate delays or bottlenecks in the processing of BWC video evidence.

Although standards and best practices for use of BWCs by law enforcement personnel are well developed, the standards and best practices for the use of BWC videos as evidence in criminal cases vary from state to state. This is due in large part to the fact that they are subject to state public information laws; the rules of evidence in discovery and at trial; and in many jurisdictions, a lack of written guidelines and procedures.

In September 2017, the Baltimore County Police Department (BCoPD) completed the deployment of body-worn cameras (BWCs) to 1,435 police officers. The introduction of BWCs in Baltimore County parallels the launching of BWC technology in many jurisdictions across the U.S. The Baltimore County policies for the use and tagging by police of BWC evidence are very well developed and available to the public.

The study focused on categories 3-5 BWC videos and tagging designations defined by the BCoPD:

Category 3 BWC videos. Misdemeanors and Serious Traffic Retention: All misdemeanors, jailable and arrestable traffic, and crashes

Category 4 BWC videos. Felony Miscellaneous Retention: All felonies not listed in number 5.

Category 5 BWC videos. Felony Specified Retention: Homicides, rapes, and first and second degree sex offenses. Special Order #2016-03

Category 1 videos record police responses to the public that do not involve a crime. Category 2 videos are for non-arrestable routine traffic cases. Non-arrestable cases are typically not reviewed or prosecuted by the SAO. Categories 6-10 videos represent less than 1% of all videos and incidents and are for training or other restricted purposes, although they may be associated with an incident.

The focus of the study was the staffing, resources, and technologies needed for the processing of BWC video evidence. During the six-month study period from January to June 2018, 1,120,708 minutes of 115,102 BWC videos (approximately 44% of all videos taken by the police) were transmitted to the State’s Attorney Office (SAO) for evidentiary processing. The BWC videos sent to the SAO represented 32,528 incidents, of which 80% were traffic and misdemeanor cases and 20% were felony cases.

Study observations include the following:

  • Public information requests for video evidence are processed for a fee on demand by the BCoPD under Maryland’s public information access (MPIA) standard, requiring the shielding or redaction of personal identifiers and video that violate privacy laws, such as in locker rooms or restrooms.
  • BWC video processing. The State’s Attorney Office in Maryland, consistent with the National District Attorney Association best practices, marks BWC videos for internal review by prosecuting attorneys and shields videos to protect the identity of victims and witnesses for evidence production to defense counsel. This process, given the rapid increase in workload, is extremely time intensive and has required the addition of a large number of trained technicians.
  • Evidence production. Generally, all prosecutor evidence is restricted to the public because it is the subject of an investigation, until it is introduced as evidence in court. Due to the volume of BWC video evidence, the State’s Attorney triages BWC videos in serious traffic and misdemeanor cases involving victims and witnesses.
  • Defense use of BWC video evidence. Due to the volume of BWC video evidence, the Public Defender in Baltimore County has resorted primarily to using streaming links to cloud-based videos in serious traffic and misdemeanor cases and to compact discs (CDs) in felony cases. BWC video exhibits in court are submitted as CDs for inclusion in the court’s hard copy case file. This practice will change when Baltimore County courts go paperless in the next year.
  • Impact on court case processing. While no data were available to assess the impact of triaging on continuances in the limited jurisdiction District Court, the policy has mitigated the impact of delays in the general jurisdiction Circuit Court. Fewer than 6% of continuance requests during the six-month time period were due to BWC video evidence production.

Best practices and standards for the processing and use of BWC video evidence are still evolving and will likely never be uniform, due to the differences in public information access laws in each state, as well as local court rules for public access to exhibits entered into evidence in the court file. In some jurisdictions, such as Harris County, Texas, Lewis and Clark County, Montana, and Washington D.C., videos are provided to defense counsel in unshielded format, with the agreement that counsel are required to shield videos to comply with public information laws, if they are introduced as evidence in court.

In Washington D.C., the court is not required to release exhibits to the public that violate privacy restrictions. As a result, BWC videos, even as court exhibits at trial, are subject to public information requests and referred to law enforcement for shielding and redaction.

The Justice Management Institute recommends that each jurisdiction ensure that criminal justice system stakeholders carefully assess the impact of policies and procedures on each case processing step and ultimately the court case file. Most important, the processing and use of BWC video evidence must comply with state laws for public information access, the rules of evidence, and local court rules.

Aimee WickmanBody-Worn Camera Video Evidence