Anybody who entered the law enforcement profession in the early to mid-‘80s, as I did, can probably say those days were better than those being experienced by today’s police officers. It seems an evolution – or better yet, a revolution – has been occurring before our eyes, with a focus on criticizing officers and police practices. Is this a result of the digital age? And how can officers protect themselves from frivolous allegations of misconduct? Technology itself may hold the answer.

Hillard Heintze recently conducted an internal investigation for a law enforcement agency. The matter involved the use of force by responding police officers during the arrest of a complaining witness in a domestic dispute. Yes, the complaining witness – the woman who called the police and asked for help – was arrested, on a warrant for an unrelated incident. The other participant in the domestic situation, a man, was not arrested.

Old Case, New Allegation

For at least a year, no issue was raised about the incident, but eventually the woman filed a complaint against the arresting officers, alleging that they threw her to the floor during her arrest. The supporting witness to the allegation was the other participant in the domestic dispute. The officers had only themselves and their reports in their defense.

The law enforcement agency hired Hillard Heintze to conduct an independent, transparent, unbiased internal investigation. During the initial inquiry by our firm, we interviewed the woman who was arrested and who made the complaint. The woman’s story was compelling and believable. The second person interviewed was the other participant in the domestic dispute, and he provided the same believable account as the complainant.

Given today’s technology, we asked for any audio and/or video recordings that may have captured the incident. With regard to the woman, we were only able to identify an in-car video recording of her being transported to the police station by the arresting officer; the audio portion malfunctioned. Video of her arrival at the secured lock-up and processing area was also found, but again with no audio. Only the arrest report called into question the complainant’s allegation of excessive force.

Found Footage Cracks the Case

This case was headed toward a conflict – the woman’s account versus the officers’ version. That is, until investigators reviewed an audio and video recording taken from the back seat of the patrol vehicle transporting the male participant to the police station that day. That audio and video recording captured irrefutable statements made by the purported supporting witness that contradicted the woman’s allegation. The recording detailed the witness’s description of the woman’s aggressive actions toward the officers, her threatening movements toward the witness – which officers stopped – and more. In effect, the audio and video recording reflected what the officers’ reports described. The recording even revealed the witness complimenting the officers for their actions.

In the end, the officers were cleared of any wrongdoing, and the agency was saved the cost of a lawsuit or negotiated settlement. The key to uncovering the truth turned out to be an audio and video recording that provided clarity as to what really happened, and which turned out to be vital to the investigation of the incident.

What Law Enforcement Can Do

Such incidents, in which the word of a police officer is pitted against that of a member or members of the community, are common-place.

The answer, as we see in the case above, is for agencies to commit to the following:

  1. Explore the acquisition of body cameras to protect officers from fraudulent claims.
  2. Promote transparency in use of force cases by equipping officers with recording devices.
  3. Build trust by holding officers accountable for their actions based on irrefutable recorded evidence.
  4. Implement processes and procedures for handling the recordings.
  5. Discuss with prosecutor’s offices how to use them.
  6. Consider engaging an outsourced agency to conduct an impartial internal affairs investigation to promote transparency.

For more on increasing transparency among police officers and the communities they serve, I suggest reading this blog written by my colleague, Debra Kirby.

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