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WKYT Investigates | Cameras and crimes

Changes in technology are also changing how crimes are solved and how officers are viewed, experts say.
Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 2:40 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Marcus Jackson did not want to see the cellphone video showing George Floyd die over 9 minutes 29 seconds, but he finally watched it, he said, during Derek Chauvin’s trial.

“I cried like a baby,” Jackson said. “Video is way more impactful than words. Words can move you - song lyrics, things like that, can move you - but it does not truly have the same impact as visually witnessing that incident.”

In fact, without that video, Jackson, organizing coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, does not believe Chauvin would have been convicted.

“For so long, people would come forward to police officers and prosecuting attorneys with evidence, but all you had was your word, which could easily be discredited,” Jackson said. “You can discredit words sometimes. But when it’s in your face, it’s hard to discredit.”

With advancements in technology, cameras are rolling now on countless interactions, changing, experts say, how crimes are investigated, solved and prosecuted, as well as upping the extent to which law enforcement officers are constantly under scrutiny.

“There’s sort of a quote that says, ‘Smartphones are now the eyes of our country,’” said Dr. Brian Simpkins, a lecturer for the Homeland Security program within Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety.

And it goes beyond smartphone cameras to surveillance cameras, home security cameras, doorbell cameras, dashboard cameras in police cruisers and private vehicles - all of which are tools often used to aid investigations.

“The camera doesn’t lie,” Dr. Simpkins said of the benefit of having video of an incident or crime under investigation. “You’re going to have different perspectives on where the camera was placed, but the camera isn’t going to change its story every time you go back and look at it.

“An eyewitness may change their story a little bit every time you go back and talk with them,” he said, “but the camera is always going to be there and it’s always going to have the same stuff.”

Security experts point to the 2013 Boston Marathon as an example of how video can help. It was among the first major incidents in which investigators crowdsourced video and pictures to help identify and then catch the bombers, Dr. Simpkins said.

In that way, it is similar to the investigation into the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, in which federal agents have culled thousands of images and video (recorded on cellphones and posted to social media) to aid in the prosecution of those involved.

Having more information at their fingertips also comes with its challenges for investigators who have to sort through troves of data, vet its authenticity and verify its veracity.

“What we tell students is your objective is not to find the needle in a haystack,” Dr. Simpkins said. “Your objective is to find the correct needle in a stack of needles.”

When it comes to body-worn cameras, Dr. Simpkins said that, to his knowledge, many officers skeptical at first have come around, realizing the cameras can protect them in addition to the public.

Recent research suggests that body-worn cameras are showing a reduction in the use of police force. In a study highlighted by National Public Radio, complaints against police dropped by 17% and police use of force dropped by nearly 10%.

But for the cameras to work, they have to be worn - and activated.

“One area that we don’t have a lot of video on is the search warrants and some of the special operations-type stuff,” Dr. Simpkins said. “Of course here in Kentucky the Breonna Taylor case was a very big issue - we don’t have video from that specific incident.

“So whether departments start putting in policies to where any type of activity like that needs a body-worn camera so we can get that perspective,” he said, “I think that’s something that may be addressed in the future.”

Experts say the growth in popularity of surveillance cameras, plus more law enforcement adopting body cameras, also brings to the forefront questions about data storage, ethics and privacy - issues that cannot be covered in depth in this story, but policies for which will undoubtedly continue to be shaped in the coming years.

The bottom line: Dr. Simpkins said part of his job is to make the next generation aware that they are on camera and they are being scrutinized.

“When we teach students about the use of technology, we say it’s sort of like playing with fire,” he explained. “Fire can keep you warm, it can cook your food, it can sanitize your water, do all this stuff. But it also can burn you. It can kill you. It can burn your house down, and stuff like that.

“So it’s making sure when you implement technology,” he said, “you’re not just going after the benefits, you’re aware it does have some costs with it.”

But Dr. Simpkins also believes that his students - growing up with technology and social media and used to posting selfies or videos of themselves - will likely feel more comfortable than other generations do know they are on camera during certain interactions.

“One of the ways we can define ethics is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking,” he said. “But most of the time someone’s looking now. It may not be a human, but there’s usually an eye on you all the time.

“I have a book in my office called ‘The System Never Blinks,’” Dr. Simpkins added. “It doesn’t.”

For one, the Lexington Police Department’s policy specifically states: “Officers should assume that they are being recorded at all times when on duty in a public space.” It also acknowledges that “recording of police actions is likely to increase.”

Marcus Jackson of the ACLU of Kentucky says more videos - including the video of George Floyd particularly, which led to widespread racial justice protests - have helped open people’s eyes to problems that minority communities have been dealing with for decades.

He encourages people to know their rights when it comes to recording police activity, and he applauds those courageous enough - including Darnella Frazier, the Minnesota teenager whose cellphone video of Floyd challenged the official narrative of what happened that day - to record such interactions.

But he also said that cameras, by themselves, are not enough.

“Without the accountability from prosecutors willing to prosecute, jurors willing to see the evidence for what it is and not go through the bias of, ‘Well this is an officer and he’s dealing with dangerous people,’ - without all these considerations,” he said, “the videos are just videos.”

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