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Republican lawmaker: ‘Biased’ videos from police body cameras create ‘altered version’ of reality

Body cameras have made their way through several police departments across the state, including most recently Arizona State University and Tempe. (Photo by Becca Smouse/Cronkite News)

Body cameras have made their way through several police departments across the state, including most recently Arizona State University and Tempe. (Photo by Becca Smouse/Cronkite News)

Sen. John Kavanagh doesn’t believe his eyes when he sees video from police body cameras, which he calls “extremely untrustworthy.”

A majority of his fellow senators seemed to agree, and approved a bill that casts doubts on the validity of the evidence produced by the newest tool in modern policing.

Senators voted, 19-11, to approve SB1253, which police unions are pushing. The bill requires a notice explaining that video depictions don’t always mirror reality and may differ from memory to be read to officers involved in violent confrontations caught on officers’ body cameras. The scripted notice also tells police not to feel obligated to explain any differences between the video and their memories of the event.

Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, put it another way, arguing that SB1253 will allow officers to first watch body camera videos so they can “basically explain away things” the video portrays.

“These recordings create an unbelievably altered version of what reality is,” he said during a debate on the floor of the Arizona Senate. “What’s going on in that camera is in the eyes of the beholder.”

Police video cameras are biased, Kavanagh added: “The biases are unbelievable.”

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, said that the video evidence is valuable to an investigation, and giving an officer who might be suspected of wrongdoing a chance to look at the evidence before making a statement is poor investigative work.

“It’s poor investigative practice to allow a witness to look at the evidence… before they are questioned,” Quezada said. “This goes against holding everybody accountable. It goes against holding the suspects accountable, and it goes against holding the officers accountable.”

Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix, said that by approving the bill and giving officers a chance to watch the videos, “we’re tampering with a witness with these recordings. That’s what makes it wrong.”

SB1253 applies only to administrative inquiries, not criminal investigations. Shootings and other use-of-force incidents generate an administrative investigation to see if the officer violated department policy. They also generate a criminal investigation in which the officer is typically considered a witness but, in some cases, could also be the suspect.

Officers are compelled to provide statements in administrative investigations.

The scripted notice would be provided before the officer gives a statement. But it would be up to individual police departments to decide whether the officer gets to view the video before giving a statement.

The proposed law would reside with statutes pertaining to police discipline, but there is nothing in the bill that says it can’t be used in a criminal investigation.

Civil rights groups and defense attorneys oppose the bill, saying the scripted notice gives a police officer a blueprint to explain away misconduct and runs the risk of harming investigations.

But Jim Mann, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the notification is necessary because he has learned that digital video works in a way that can distort reality. He said he learned about the fallibility of video by speaking with Grant Fredericks, a renowned video forensic expert who has testified for police and plaintiffs who sue police in civil trials.

All 17 of the Senate’s Republican lawmakers voted in favor of SB1253, along with Democrat Sens. Sean Bowie, D-Chandler, and Olivia Cajero Bedford, D-Tucson.

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