Worthy says office needs help reviewing more cop videos

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy is seeking more staff to help process the growing volume of police dashboard and body camera videos involved in criminal prosecutions.

Video is proving to be the star witness in investigations and trials across the country, but the verdict is still out on how to handle the extra work the evidence generates.

Worthy is allocating $350,000 of the $34 million 2016-17 fiscal year budget to create a special investigative unit of up to 10 new prosecutors and new technology to handle the workload of evaluating and processing hours of video. The final dollar amount for the unit is still being determined, Wayne County Prosecutor spokeswoman Maria Miller said Friday.

“We will not have a final figure until the salaries for the staff are determined by our CFO,” Miller said.

Prosecutors across Michigan have been trained about the “tremendous tool” of video and how it can be used at trial, but they will need extra staff to “make sure we’re getting correct (information),” said Mark Reene, president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

“You just can’t add additional resources to plates that are already full,” he said. “We’re working toward implementing (the new procedures). It has to be done in a manner that is fruitful and efficient.”

Worthy’s unit will review the body cam and dash cam videos in addition to other duties in the prosecutor’s office. Among the new technology are dual-screen monitors, computers, Blu-ray drives and video editing/capture software, Miller said.

About 39 police departments are using body cams in Michigan, including Detroit, Canton Township and Roseville.

Prosecutor’s offices in the counties of Oakland and Macomb said they do not yet plan to seek additional staff to investigate body cams and dash cam video.

As the prosecutor in Michigan’s most populous county, Worthy’s caseload includes Detroit, which has the second-highest crime rate in the nation, according to the most recent FBI statistics. Crime statistics released last week by the FBI indicate a decline, however, in the overall crime in the city in 2015.

About 1,500 Detroit police officers wear the wallet-sized body cameras about three times a day. Another 450 in-vehicle cameras are used in squad cars throughout the department.

Help goes both ways

Use of the cameras is helping prosecutors and defendants alike.

In Wayne County, a jury convicted a former Inkster police officer in the beating of a motorist last year largely because of a video from the officer’s own in-car video camera.

In Oakland County, a woman and her lawyer are trying to obtain the squad car video from a Hazel Park officer who is accused of forcing her to jiggle her breasts after a traffic stop.

As complaints and protests continue nationally over the stopping and shooting of African-American men by police across the country, the use of body and dashboard cameras has become important, observers say.

At least 102 unarmed African-Americans were killed by police in 2015, nearly two a week, according to the mappingpoliceviolence.org website. The site also reports police have killed at least 217 black people in the United States this year. According to the Washington Post, 715 people were shot and killed by police across the country this year. The newspaper has been tracking fatal shootings involving police since January 2015.

Worthy told commissioners that if only 10 percent of the video was received as part of a case in her office, there would be 900 hours of video from the cameras per day that needs to be reviewed by her department. She said videos from the body and dash cameras yield evidence that can clear individuals on both sides of the case.

“Tapes can exonerate police officers ... so it’s valuable on both sides,” she said.

In the Floyd Dent case in Inkster, his lawyer, Greg Rohl, said he got “lucky” and was able to get incriminating police video about two weeks after the January 2015 incident.

“I think I got lucky in my case without anyone having previewed the video,” Rohl said. “It was inadvertent on their part.”

Rohl said videos from body and dash cams are becoming the state-of-the-art investigative tool in cases that are making their way into court.

“It cuts both ways,” said Rohl, who also is representing a Dearborn Police corporal against charges that he groped a female acquaintance’s breast during a traffic stop. “(Videotapes) will protect police officers as well from (false accusations), and instances where they overstep their boundaries (the evidence) is there.”

Cams are complicated

For police departments considering body cams, expenses can be just one of several issues to consider, said Ed Jacques, director of member services for the Redford-based Police Officers Association of Michigan. Not only are there costs associated with buying equipment and training officers, but police agencies need to figure out how to store it, too.

“There are all kinds of situational issues that come up about departments using body cams,” Jacques said. “It’s not something (all police departments) want to look at.”

Rohl said while the cost to provide the technology can be “cost prohibitive,” it will be helpful to police departments in the long run.

“(The technology) will save them millions of dollars,” he said.

Jacques said the cameras also raise questions such as whether faces should be blurred out if a police officer is interviewing witnesses.

“We would like for (body cameras) to be deployed because they can exonerate police officers too, and also avoid lengthy investigations into bogus complaints against them,” he said.

“But there are no real clear laws on what they can and cannot be used for. Can a department use them for their own disciplinary purposes? The questions go on and on. That’s why a lot of departments have not pulled the trigger on them yet.”

Others think body cams should be mandatory for all departments.

State lawmaker Rose Mary Robinson, who also is an attorney, introduced a bill last year making it mandatory that police officers wear body cameras at all times while on the job.

“It’s beneficial to both sides, for both the individual who is stopped and for the officer,” said Robinson, D-Detroit. “It serves as a deterrent for police officers. They’re human. They make mistakes. My intent is to not to harm police officers but to protect the community.”

Robinson, who admits that the likelihood of her bill passing is not very encouraging, says “it’s not a cure-all but something helpful.”

bwilliams@detroitnews.com

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