May 04, 2023
While body cameras are used by police for a vast number of reasons, one of the most significant uses of body camera footage is when police are handling violent crime scene investigations.
The use of body cameras has become more common in recent years, with police departments around the world implementing them as a way to improve transparency and accountability. Body cameras provide an unbiased record of events, which can be used to determine what happened in a particular incident. When it comes to violent crime scene investigations, body camera footage can be an absolutely invaluable tool.
One of the most important ways in which body camera footage plays a role in the investigation is documenting the sequence of events. When responding to a violent crime scene, police officers may be faced with a chaotic situation. As a police officer of over a decade in southern New Jersey, I know all too well that, in these cases, there may be multiple suspects, victims, and witnesses, and it can be difficult to determine exactly what happened.
While police officers are trained professionals, responding to aggravated assaults involving weapons, homicides, robberies, and other such crimes are never routine. Our first responsibility is securing the scene and saving lives, not necessarily preserving physical evidence; in those first moments of chaos, nothing else matters. That is, until it is time to unpack the events that transpired and begin a true investigation.
After the initial response, body camera footage can help to establish the sequence of events by providing a clear record of what each officer saw and heard and the orders in which they saw and heard things. This can provide a huge variety of insight to an investigation. What did Witness 1 say to Officer A and what did Witness 2 say to Officer B on the footage? Did their stories change after body camera footage captured them speaking with one another? The potential circumstances are endless and invaluable.
Body camera footage can also be used to identify suspects and witnesses. In many cases, violent crimes are committed by people who are known to the police, but in some cases, the perpetrator may be unknown. By reviewing body camera footage, police can identify potential suspects and witnesses who may have information about the crime.
In one case that I handled early in my career, the body camera I was wearing actually captured an event that I had not observed in real time and was only noticed after the fact. When stopping a young driver for a motor vehicle violation, the driver and front seat passenger were able to switch seats as I was pulling them over. It was later determined that the original driver, who had later switched into the passenger’s seat, had a suspended driver’s license.
While this is not a violent or even a very serious crime, it is a great example of how a scene can be complicated or confusing in the eyes of an officer at the scene and then how the body camera footage can later be scrutinized during an investigation. The body camera capturing footage that the officer may not have heard or seen in real time may just turn a witness into a suspect.
In addition to helping to identify suspects and witnesses, body camera footage can be used as evidence in court. In many cases, the footage can provide a clear record of what happened, which can be used to corroborate witness statements or to dispute claims made by the defense. Body camera footage can also be used to provide a visual record of injuries sustained by victims or to document the condition of the crime scene.
In my experience in courtroom trials, I have noticed juries wanting to see more and more evidence, likely due to the rising popularity in television shows like Law & Order, N.C.I.S., Criminal Minds, and the like. By providing the jury with the body camera footage of officers responding to a homicide, for example, it puts each juror in the position of the officer. The jurors can see for themselves that it was a chaotic scene. They can see for themselves that an officer accidentally stepped into a pool of blood and tracked it throughout the house, debunking the defense’s claim that there was some other possible suspect involved. They can see where the weapons were, where the victims were, and hear who said what.
In one such homicide case that I was involved with in 2016, I was the first responding officer and located the suspect immediately outside his residence, where it was reported that he had killed two people inside. While responding to the call, I activated my body camera. So when I exited my patrol car and made contact with him, the body camera captured him saying, “They’re dead, you can’t save them. I did it.”
It was determined that there were two deceased individuals in the residence and that the suspect I had encountered was responsible. When taken into custody, the suspect refused to speak with detectives and he never provided a statement, however, when the case went to trial, the jury was able to see him and hear him say, “They’re dead, you can’t save them. I did it.” While there was some other evidence that proved his guilt, the weight of that body camera evidence resulted in a very quick guilty verdict and a sentence of 80 years in prison.