The police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis caused a flood of outrage when video from the attack on the 29-year old Black father was finally made public by the Memphis Police Department (MPD) recently. While some may note that parts of the attack by the five Black MPD Officers were captured by police body-worn cameras, it was the footage from an MPD “SkyCop” street camera that had the most comprehensive view of what the cops did that night.
So what are the challenges and best practices for copwatchers and activists who may want to obtain footage from cameras on the street? COPWATCH.MEDIA spoke to Jerome Greco, the Digital Forensics Supervising Attorney at the Legal Aid Society, and our own Dennis Flores, a longtime copwatcher and activist, on how to get footage that can help victims of police violence and misconduct.
In the attack on Nichols, the street camera belonged to the police. As cops have blanketed more and more urban cities with cameras as part of a broader push for surveillance, a growing problem in its own right, there is a good chance that the public camera that might have footage copwatchers need is actually in control of the police themselves. While that might make getting that footage harder, it’s not impossible. People can file Freedom of Information law (FOIL) requests for video if those laws exist in their state, like they do in New York (here is a good explainer from Gothamist).
“A key issue when using your jurisdiction’s freedom of information law to obtain street camera video is time – both when to submit the request and for the length of the video you are requesting,” Greco says. “Each agency that controls street cameras retains the recordings for different periods of time. It is in your best interest to file your request as soon as possible, before the video is routinely overwritten.” He also advises people to take note of how long police retain video “for future reference.”
Given that most police departments are likely to obstruct your efforts, it’s important to make sure you have the correct information when requesting video. For example, you’ll need a good sense of when an incident occurred when requesting footage or else police can deny that request for not being specific enough. Greco says that “you cannot rely on the accuracy of law enforcement’s report on the time of the incident.”
“Even when they are documenting it truthfully, it is typically still an estimate, and most often just the time of arrest. You want video from both before and after the arrest,” he advises. “You want to see what led to the interaction and how the person was treated after they were handcuffed. You want to limit the police’s ability to try to justify their actions by what they say occurred before or after the video.” Greco recommends “at least 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after the time you believe the incident occurred.”
Doing some reconnaissance at the location of an incident also helps. “If time and circumstances permit, it is also best to go to the scene and scope out the cameras. This will have multiple benefits. You may find cameras you did not know about or the police have ignored,” Greco explains. “You will also get a better idea of what the cameras may have captured, based on their placement.”
“Lastly, it will enable you to be more specific in your freedom of information request. For example, it is better to be able to request ‘video from NYPD Argus camera 7-26255, on a lamppost on the corner of Church Street and Vesey Street,’ than “video from NYPD cameras near the World Trade Center.’ If you are unable to go to the scene, Google Street View can still be useful for finding and describing cameras.”
Depending on where you live, local private businesses and homeowners may have security cameras that could capture an incident involving police. Making use of that footage doesn’t only involve approaching those people and asking for it, it should be accompanied with a gameplan for what to do if they give it to you. Our own Dennis Flores has had to retrieve video evidence numerous times during his time as a copwatcher in New York City. He breaks down some of what has helped him through the years.
He starts by noting that to work with people who’ve been victims of police, you need to have credibility in the community. “It’s important to be consistent – being able to demonstrate a long term commitment to police accountability. One needs to be present in the community in order to build trust,” he explains. “People need to know that you have their safety in mind, and that you take precautions, and the followup that will be done once the footage is obtained.”
Flores encourages copwatchers and activists to respect the people that you are working to help. “A plan needs to be put in place that centers people that were directly affected, so you can be supporting them and what they need.” He also suggests thinking through the process. “Here are some questions to ask yourself,” he says. “What proactive steps are you taking after the footage is recorded and published? Are you organizing town halls, forums or other forms of outreach to let people know what’s going on?”
Flores explains that obtaining footage requires patience, as it will likely neither be easy or fast. “Collecting the video evidence is the first step, but being there after is where the real work begins. People get intimidated to not move forward, to not file claims,” he says. “The authorities have highly developed tactics used to intimidate and silence victims, and we need to know how to respond to this and prepare the families for what is to come.” He also notes that timing is a consideration. “You must be strategic… not all footage needs to be made public right away,” Flores cautions.
He also advises to keep notes on your efforts in case you obtain video evidence that can help victims of police, either by proving police misconduct or abuse or even defending themselves from false charges. “You have to document and log every step of what you are doing, because in order for your footage to be admitted as evidence in a court case, that footage needs to be authenticated and verified that it has not been digitally tampered with. Write down the model number of the surveillance equipment, its serial number, and write down every step that you took in order to retrieve the footage from that DVR system.”
“Once the files are exported onto your USB thumbdrive, everything you do from then on has to be documented. You must leave the file as is – do not change the filename, do not make any changes to the metadata,” he explains. “The technology exists that can show when files were tampered with and that is how they throw evidence out of court. If you need to edit it for any purpose, every single step that you took in altering that footage must be documented.”
He also advises copwatcher and activists to move independently and quickly. “The reason you want to collect this footage independently is that you are not bound by the rules of discovery in the legal process which can bind you from making this footage public.” There are also concerns with how private camera footage is stored. “In my experience, I know that these DVR surveillance systems reset themselves after a certain time period,” Flores says. “If businesses don’t have modern surveillance systems, that footage will not be available for very long. The clock is ticking after an incident so it is important to follow up as soon as possible.”
Flores also warns that cops will be quick to try to locate private cameras in the vicinity of an incident. This can lead to potential cover ups or erasing of evidence, or simply delaying the ability of the public to see it. “Once the police do the rounds and collect footage from private cameras, they do not have an obligation to share this publicly. They may be forced to share evidence with litigating attorneys later in the process, but they systematically delay any release of footage while trying to rush settlements so they never have to share, nor make the footage public,” he says. “While an open investigation is pending, the authorities will claim they cannot disclose anything about a case. This is a strategy to tire you out, to never give you access.”
Flores points to experiences he has had in the past obtaining video that highlight that getting security video is a battle for information with cops themselves. “In an incident in my neighborhood of Sunset Park in 2015 where the NYPD arrested and assaulted patrons as well as a chef and the son of the owner of the restaurant, the officers involved in the incident returned to the scene hours later in order to retrieve surveillance from the incident,” he recalls.
“They went in and manually erased everything that occurred. I had to do data recovery on the DVR hard drive and was able to recover the original footage of the incident which took several days as the hard drive had to be physically removed from the DVR and plugged into another computer where a software program reconstitutes the footage bit by bit,” he says. “Once we got the footage back, we were able to see the cops returning to the scene, climbing up to where the machine was, and deleting the files.”
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