Video Surveillance: Justice Threatened by Emotional Reactions

Another view on proper use of security camera video evidence in court and in the media
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David Notowitz In June, Government Video published a commentary about the use of video in the case “People v Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli.” David Notowitz, founder of the National Center for Audio and Video Forensics, provides a different perspective in the following commentary.

As surveillance video becomes more prevalent throughout our society, video and audio evidence is also becoming more significant in court cases.

You have no doubt seen video surveillance -- on YouTube or television news -- of crimes taking place, accidents and riots. What section of these events is shown? Only that section which evokes the strongest emotional reaction.

The media gets caught up in promoting scenes with emotions -- emotional moments make great news and great ratings. They milk it. Plus, in their rush to get out a story, they often don’t spend the time to understand the deeper context. A 7 p.m. interview is used for the 11 p.m. evening news. No time for discovering the truth.

People get caught up in the emotion of what they see and react instantly. They forget to look more deeply. They forget there may be another side to the situation. The intense emotions obscure their objectivity.

In court, it’s the same. Reactions to video and audio evidence is emotional and immediate -- more intense than viewing other evidence such as a fingerprints, hair follicles, or pieces of clothing -- and this makes understanding the context around the video crucial.

At NCAVF, it’s our job to find the factual details to build a context for the case. We most commonly enhance 911 calls, alleged crimes and accidents caught on surveillance cameras, fights and police actions recorded by smartphone video, and undercover video from private investigators.

The most high-profile case we have right now, People v Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli, helps to make my point. We’re working for the defense of these police officers. It’s a case filled with high emotions; as you watch the footage you feel for the man who died, Kelly Thomas, and his family.

Thomas’ calls for help are troubling. He says, “Sorry” a number of times, and eventually calls out, “Daddy.” I’ve watched certain sections of this video over 200 times at this point, and it still pains me at times to watch, especially as I consider that these words are Thomas’ last.

It is uncomfortable to watch, but in our goal of fair treatment and justice, we must focus on understanding what happened that night. It is our professional responsibility as forensic video experts to reveal details of the video evidence to determine if there is fault, or if it was a combination of unfortunate circumstances that led to a sad result.

In the Ramos and Cicinelli case, a 911 call was made reporting that a possible burglary was in progress, and Thomas was stopped as a suspect. There are many details that can be uncovered through careful investigation of the video. Does Thomas comply with officers’ orders? Did officers treat him fairly? Does Thomas mock the officers and hide his identity? Is Thomas a threat to the officers? Did Thomas resist arrest?

I’ve seen in a number of cases how emotions -- triggered by a widely distributed audio or video -- can overtake a community like a giant wave. It’s as if people are channeling their personal anger and frustrations with life and taking aim at a few people or a government entity. This happened with People v Ramos and Cicinelli in Fullerton, in that the case caused major upheaval. (In a June recall election, three members of the City Council were voted out of office, and the police chief stepped down. Very outspoken with numerous appearances on television is the civil attorney representing Thomas’ father trying to use video to his advantage to sway public opinion.)

Here are two more examples:

The recent Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman shooting in Florida -- (NCAVF is not hired nor designated as an expert on this case.) Some were upset when they viewed the video as Mr. Zimmerman was escorted into jail for questioning. They didn’t see any injuries and thought the video contradicted Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that he was beaten badly by Trayvon Martin. At this point I was called by USA Today for my opinion on the footage.

I told them this video is very low resolution and that you can’t see the details yet.

“Right now, people are jumping to frantic conclusions,” I said in the article. “Mr. Zimmerman may be totally innocent. He may have reason for doing what he did. He also might be guilty. But the evidence is not there yet.”

Later I located a high-resolution version of the same video and enhanced it to uncover multiple, serious injuries.

The case of People v. Ivory Webb in San Bernardino -- Officer Webb was accused of unlawfully shooting a man who was exiting a car after a 100 mile-per-hour chase and crash. A neighbor videotaped most of the encounter. The community was in an uproar, and the case garnered national attention. Officer Webb received death threats. I was the forensic video expert on the defense team for Webb.

Our job as forensic video experts in the case was to enhance and analyze all media -- from police dispatch audio and 911 calls to the videotape of the incident and all photos and video taken in the investigation -- to find and uncover details that could help explain what happened. We uncovered a number of details which I won’t go over here, which helped to explain the officer’s actions.

After a month-long trial, the jury came back in only two hours of deliberation with a not guilty verdict.

As the Webb verdict demonstrated, cases utilizing video and audio evidence need to be objectively evaluated, not emotionally driven. Those evaluations are best done in a court of law, not in the media nor living rooms or offices.

David Notowitz is founder of the National Center for Audio and Video Forensics.