For Cops, Micromanagement Won’t Change Video
Sept. 29, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — I’m a great believer in video. When I was a patrol officer, sometime in the last century, I talked the Chief into letting me have this shoulder mounted VCR camera for my squad car. I took it and the car down to the shop, and asked the guys there if they could figure a way to mount it. So these guys basically machined a piece of aluminum, mounted the camera on it, and attached the aluminum block to the firewall with steel supports. It was ugly, but it worked, and the camera was not going to move.
So I then went down to Radio Shack and got a wireless mike that I could hook up to the camera, and we were in business. Well, sort of. The camera wasn’t designed for low-light, so the picture kinda sucked, and if I stepped in the front of the suspect car the mike faded out, but it was video. It saved my butt a couple of times when driver’s complained about getting a ticket and provided evidence in a bunch of DWI trials. I would review the tape when I wrote my report, to insure that I was accurate and didn’t miss anything. I didn’t think anything of it.
So I was surprised to hear that Portland, Oregon Police Chief Larry O’Dea was upset that his officers were allowed to review surveillance video before making statements during an investigation into an officer-involved shooting. You see, back in late June, Alan Lee Bellew pointed a starter-pistol at Portland police officers. And promptly got shot, repeatedly, by the officers at the scene. He died there.
A starter pistol looks like a small revolver, but it only shoots blanks. At night, at the distances involved, it is perfectly reasonable for officers to assume that Bellew was pointing a real gun at them and for them to respond with deadly force. We don’t know for sure why Bellew did what he did, he was wanted for probation violation from a possession of heroin charge—he could have been committing suicide by cop or he may have been under the impression he could threaten his way out of there. We’ll never know for sure, because Bellew is dead, which brings us back to the main point.
So the officers apparently did not have body cams, nor was the shooting caught on dash cams. There was, however, a surveillance camera on a nearby Taco Bell that caught the shooting on tape, and the detectives had a copy of it. So the detectives allowed, with the approval of their assistant chief, the involved officers to review the tape prior to making their statements.
I should clarify one thing, the detectives were investigating potential criminal charges against the officers, and the officers did not have to give any statement at all. The tape did not reveal much, and the detectives did not feel as if it would compromise the case. Both the Internal Affairs (IA) investigators, and the independent police review board objected to the officers being allowed to watch the video.
Apparently the federal Department of Justice agreed, and didn’t think that it was a good idea to let officers review the tapes before making a statement. Of course, Chief O’Dea did not say it should never be done, he just wants to approve it himself.
Yeah, Okay. That’s what we need, more micromanagement by chiefs.
First, while DOJ has valid reasons for being concerned about the way the Portland Police Bureau operates, particularly in officer-involved shootings, this is absolute BS. It is no different than that same officer reviewing his handwritten notes prior to making a statement or filing a report. It enhances the accuracy of the statement and brings out the truth. That’s what we want, to know the truth.
Second, the officers did not have to give a statement at all. This is a criminal investigation, and once they have been given the Miranda warning, could have told the detectives to pound sand. Were I representing the officers, that would have been my initial advice, because there is nothing good that comes from making a statement to the police if you are a suspect. It gets you some room to bargain.
The very least that I would have done is demand that the officers view the video prior to making a statement, and I would have pushed for that because, once the officers left the criminal investigation, there would be an IA investigation. And in an IA investigation, the officers can be ordered to give a statement, with or without an opportunity to watch the video. However, the IA and the review board investigations can not be used to criminally prosecute the officers, because the officers do not have the right to remain silent.
So I’m good with the video being watched and don’t see it as a problem. Of course, I would make the same demand for a civilian client, that unless the detectives allowed the client to review any videos, there would be no statement.
The bigger problem here is a chief who intends to micromanage his subordinates. Chief, hire good people and let them do their job. It’s your job to keep the riff-raff off their backs, not to increase the petty bureaucracy they have to put up with. You should be telling the DOJ to pound sand here, not supporting them.
It is no different now than it was with that grainy VHS tape over 20 years ago. We’re after the truth, not convictions or terminations.