Can Body Cameras Assist in DUI Stops?

Posted by Jon Ibanez on March 14th, 2016

It’s no big secret that many people have come to distrust law enforcement. The public distrust peaked in recent times after the highly publicized, and criticized, officer-involved shootings of Kelly Thomas, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, to name a few.

In response, several law enforcement agencies began to issue body cameras to their officers with the hopes that incidences like these stop or, at a minimum, provide unbiased, objective information on what actually occurred.

In fact, even President Barack Obama urged law enforcement agencies throughout the country to issue body cameras to officers and offered $20 million in federal funds towards obtaining them.

As of April this year, Davis Police will be the latest law enforcement agency to be equipped with body cameras to record interactions with the public.

“It’s a great evidence-gathering tool for us,” said Lt. Tom Waltz. “It’s also another level of transparency. In situations where there’s a dispute about what occurred, we have a recording of it.

Davis officers will not be allowed to delete or modify footage obtained from the body cameras. They will however, be allowed to view the footage before giving a statement or preparing a police report. The footage will be uploaded to a server following an officer’s shift, or the footage can be uploaded immediately in cases where it is necessary to view the footage immediately.

With the use of body cameras increasing amongst law enforcement agencies here in California, the questions arises, “what effect will body cameras have on DUI stops?”

Many law enforcement agencies currently use what are commonly known as “dash cams;” cameras mounted to the dash of police squad cars. The cameras capture the DUI stop and provide information on whether the officer had the probable cause to make the traffic stop. The camera, however, is limited in that it cannot capture what the officer regularly uses as a justification to begin investigating and ultimately making an arrest for a DUI; the up-close interaction with the person whom they’ve pulled over.

What’s more, when officers have a person perform field sobriety tests, they often take them out of the view of the dash cam. The officers then prepare a police report which indicates that the person failed the field sobriety test, sometimes without even explaining how or why they came to the conclusion that the person failed.

The job of police is to obtain information and evidence objectively. Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  Officer testimony and police reports are regularly made for the purpose of securing a DUI conviction and, as such, are biased.

A body camera, however, would serve to provide first-hand evidence to support officer claims that a person was, in fact driving drunk. If an officer justifies a DUI arrest by claiming that an arrestee had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes, the footage would verify the officer’s claims. If an officer determines that a person failed field sobriety tests, the footage from the body camera could support the officer’s interpretation of the person’s performance.

Lt. Waltz of the Davis Police Department used a word that I think captures what will hopefully become effect of using body cameras for law enforcement; transparency. The purpose of the body camera is not necessarily to find incriminating evidence, exculpatory evidence, or even evidence of police misconduct. The purpose of the body camera is to find the truth and if that’s what it provides, I’m on board.

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