Mimesis Law
20 October 2021

Why? So The Story Matches The Video

Sept. 30, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Our resident former police officer, Greg Prickett, couldn’t see a problem with Portland cops being allowed to watch the videotape of their killing Alan Lee Bellew.  Portland’s Chief of Police, Larry O’Dea, had a problem, and Greg has a problem with that as well. It was a weird day for problems.

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.

According to Greg, O’Dea’s problem wasn’t that the cops were shown the video, but that no one asked his permission to do so. Greg called it micromanagement.  Maybe it was. Or maybe O’Dea’s issue is the one I see, and Greg doesn’t.

Yet O’Dea said that he won’t abolish the practice. Instead, any future decision to show a video to an officer before an investigative interview will require the chief’s approval, he said.

After all, it’s certainly possible that the authoritarian nature of policing left O’Dea out of a decision he wanted to make, which would be suggested by his stating that he wouldn’t abolish the practice of cops being shown video of their killings.

On the other hand, the chief may distinguish police shooting that raise red flags, greater potential to be controversial or where the cops could well be murderers.  Perhaps the chief wants to make sure that cops aren’t given a peep show of video before they get to come up with a story when it’s the sort of killing that raises questions.

But the root problem, at least for me if not Greg, is that he fails to perceive any mischief that could come of cops watching the video before being compelled to speak with internal affairs investigators.

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.

The first point of interest is that the non-IA detectives didn’t see a problem where everyone else did. Certainly, fellow Portland cops are more likely to be “understanding” of the shooters’ desire to watch the tape, whereas those charged with investigating the shooters are not.

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.

The second point of interest is that it’s different. Very different. An officer reviewing his own notes is still bound by what he remembers, or chose to put into his report.  It’s his own work product, and he controls it. Video, on the other hand, is neutral. It shows what it shows. The cop may not know whether it shows him doing some dirty that he hopes to hide, or just some vague shadow that does nothing to show wrongdoing.

More importantly, by watching the video before making a statement where he’s being investigated, he has the ability to build his story around what he saw in the video.  Rather than have the video trip up a lie, it allows him to circumvent whatever the video reveals by building his story to conform to the video.

Channeling Greg for a moment, he might suggest that cops wouldn’t do that, because they are upstanding human beings. Now it’s my turn to call BS.  Not to get into the weed of whether all or most cops do bad things, there’s no denying that some cops do. They murder. They lie. They steal. And they would have no problem using their viewing of the video to fabricate a lie about what happened to mesh with what appears on the screen.

And that’s the harm that comes of watching the video before making a statement.

But that doesn’t end the problems raised when Greg goes on to say

That’s what we want, to know the truth.

With all my might, I’m resisting doing my best Jack Nicholson impression.  No defendant ever in the history of prosecution is offered the opportunity to watch a video of his exploits before being interrogated.

Is that because the cops don’t want the truth? Of course not. The cops want their truth, the truth they can get out of a defendant through manipulation such as the Reid Technique. And as the Supreme Court is wont to say, lying is an effective law enforcement tool, so seeing the video kinda blows the whole deal of the good cop telling the perp that it’s all on video so he might as well help himself now and spill his guts.

Or is it that the concern differs for a police officer when he commits murder, because a murdering cop is somehow more honorable than any other person and would never use his viewing of the video to manufacture an excuse?  Putting aside that fact that coming up with a great rationalizations for conduct is a course at the Police Academy, can one seriously suggest that cop would murder, but is too honorable to lie about it?

No, allowing a police officer to watch the video of his killing makes no sense at all.  If he’s inclined to tell the truth, he’s certainly capable of doing so without watching a video. As to the concern that the video will improve his accuracy, it will most assuredly improve something, but whether that’s accuracy or his excuse will be impossible to say.

The point is that a cop under investigation should get no free pass on fabricating his story by being allowed to watch the video of the killing. The same reasons that apply to any other suspect apply to cops. If you want truth, then the way to get it is to not give a cop a heads up as to the evidence that, in the absence of a really good lie, will save his butt.  And let’s remember the First Rule of Policing. That applies to going home for dinner after the IA interview as well.

3 Comments on this post.

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  • StevenK
    30 September 2015 at 1:49 pm - Reply

    This very notion was pointed out in the comments of Greg Prickett’s post, albeit not as comprehensively and eloquently as Scott has done here. Greg did not deign to reply in his own post, it will be interesting to see if he replies here.

    • shg
      30 September 2015 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      Unlike almost any other source of criminal law commentary, Fault Lines was created to air all perspectives rather than be an echo chamber of one point of view. I have enormous respect for Greg’s view, carrying 20 years of cop-life in the trenches. Even though we sometimes disagree, it’s important that we be able to air his view as well as mine, especially since he knew going in that there would be strong disagreement to his position. Yet, Greg had the guts and integrity to write what he knew would be unpopular anyway.

      Greg said his piece in his post. I (and commenters) have chosen to respond. He owes me (and them) no reply. There isn’t a winner in such disagreements, but an airing of views. It’s here. Readers are now able to read what’s offered and reach their own conclusions. That’s how it can, and should, work.

  • Body Cams, Policy And The Public’s “Right” To Know | Simple Justice
    12 October 2015 at 8:52 am - Reply

    […] Allowing police officers to see video before writing up reports or being questioned allows them to tailor their statements to what the video shows.  This is a terrible problem, but of a wholly different nature than the public […]