HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) — If a picture is worth a thousand words, then video is even more valuable.
When it comes to body camera footage — video can add a layer of transparency to policing and the court process, but the jury is still out on whether the advent of such footage has much impact on conviction rates.
Where it does seem to have the most impact is on public perception of police and the criminal justice system. For a WAVY 10 investigation, we looked at three high profile cases involving use of force.
First, a shooting on Granby Street which led to Norfolk police officers shooting and injuring Barry Carrington as he reloaded his gun outside a busy restaurant back in February.
“The fact that we had high quality body camera footage made my job easier,” Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fatehi.
After a review of the use of force, Fatehi held a press conference to announce the officers who shot Carrington would not face any charges. He says it’s a decision he would’ve made without the video, but that it “made the evidence clearer and can give the public more trust in what the police did and the fact that police did what they had to do.”
On the other hand, body camera footage can show officers doing perhaps what they’re not supposed to.
For example, video of a traffic stop in Windsor, Virginia, went viral when it showed two police officers pepper spraying US Army Lieutenant Caron Nazario after they pulled him over for what they believed to be a missing license plate on the back of his SUV.
The officers involved weren’t charged, but a special prosecutor did request an investigation to find if one of the officers violated Nazario’s civil rights.
“It would’ve been difficult to actually explain – let alone to sell to a jury – what actually occured without the body camera footage,” said Jonathan Arthur, who is representing Nazario in a civil lawsuit against the officers.
As a civil rights attorney, Arthur says body camera footage can benefit his clients.
“We’ve been kind of trained through pop culture and media, through ‘Cops’ and ‘Law & Order’ to really want to believe law enforcement, and it was a very big hurdle to get over to convince juries that my client’s version was the truth. It gives t he independent view of what occurred,” Arthur said.
Finally, a lack of body camera footage can raise questions about officers’ actions in the community. That’s what happened in the case of Donovon Lynch, who was shot and killed by a police officer during a chaotic night at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in 2021.
The officer who shot Lynch had a body camera, but didn’t activate it. Prosecutors determined the shooting was justified, but in the aftermath of the deadly shooting, members of the community protested — and Lynch’s family sued the officer.
As far as its impact on court cases, it’s something Katie Bollman, assistant professor of economics at Oregon State University says the research is a bit surprising.
“Overall the number of cases entering the courts do look like they’re about the same before and after police are wearing body-worn cameras,” Bollman said.
Bollman’s research shows implementation of cameras in local police departments has resulted in a 10% decrease in cases involving direct involvement with a police officer – like resisting arrest, or assault on a police officer. But otherwise — it hasn’t moved the needle much in terms of convictions.
Her study also found that the camera footage can significantly increase workloads for prosecutors. But that side effect is something Fatehi is willing to live with.
“They help with transparency and public trust,” he said.
“A lot of the attitude we see in courst is that the expectation from jurors is, ‘pictures or it didn’t happen,’ ‘video or it didn’t happen,'” he said.
Arthur points to that transprancy as something that could have a dramatic effect on society.
“I’m hoping it’s gonna help put me out of work eventually I would like to not do this kind of work because we have properly trained law enforcement, and we have citizens who are trained to deal with law enforcement encounters,” he said.