Sandra Bland video: Should dash cam footage be edited, and how?

The Texas Department of Public Safety says that apparent irregularities in the video showing the controversial arrest of a woman who later died in jail are due to glitches. But the incident illustrates broader questions about how police camera footage should be handled.

When reports surfaced last week about the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail cell, many questions focused on how she had ended up in the cell in the first place.

Early reports said Ms. Bland was arrested after she started acting violently during a traffic stop (she had been pulled over for not signaling a lane change). But a cell phone video showing the end of the arrest only fueled further skepticism.

When the Texas Department of Public Safety released a 52-minute dashcam video of the arrest yesterday, the department may have hoped it would solve at least some of the mysteries around how a traffic stop devolved into an arrest on charges of assaulting a police officer.

It was only a few hours before the video started to raise more questions than answers.

Last night, members of the public began pointing out what appear to be choppy edits in the footage. At several points in the video, posted to the Texas DPS’ YouTube channel, footage of a person walking or a car driving by are cut or repeat themselves as audio continues uninterrupted. Cars appear and disappear, or drive past the scene multiple times. The glitches occur after the footage of Bland’s arrest, while the arresting officer, Brian Encinia, is describing the arrest to his sergeant over the phone.

Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas DPS, told the Monitor that a technical glitch, not intentional editing, were responsible for the irregularities in the video.

In a statement, Mr. Vinger said that the entire video was uploaded to include the audio and video of the stop, the arrest, and Officer Encinia’s subsequent conversation with his sergeant.

“Some of the video during this conversation was affected in the upload and is being addressed,” Vinger said in the statement. “We are working to repost the dash cam video.”

But the glitches triggered a rash of mistrust and skepticism online yesterday night from journalists, activists, and even the director of the film, "Selma." And the incident raises broader concerns, such as when or how it is appropriate to edit police camera footage. It’s not yet apparent what specifically caused the glitches in the Bland video, but it’s clear that there are practical, technological questions around police cameras, as well as legal and ethical questions.

These are the latest in a growing litany surrounding the handling of video from dash cams and body cameras. With the use of police body cameras growing by the month, experts say the need to answer these questions is only getting more urgent.

Last week, the public release of dash cam video of a police shooting in Gardena, Calif. – more than two years after the incident occurred – raised questions over if, how, and when such footage should be made public.

Now the Sandra Bland video is raising questions over editing of police footage. Should the footage be edited at all? If so, how? And by who? And at what point in the process should the editing occur?

Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University and a former Maryland police officer, says that the immaturity of the technology – and police policy around it – means that the issues are still very much in flux.

“So much of this is in its infancy. It’s in an experimental phase, and you want to be able to iron it out,” he says.

He points out that two issues often get raised when it comes to editing video: one is departmental policy on if a video gets edited, how it gets edited, and who does the editing. The other issue is whether the video is able to be edited at all.

“It’s incidents like this that draw attention to some of the problems with body cameras,” he says. “It gives the appearance or the perception that there’s wrongdoing when in fact there [may be] no wrongdoing.”

A pilot project launched by the Denver Police Department last year pointed to potential technical issues. The department announced plans to field 800 body cameras within the force. The Denver Post reported at the time that the cameras would constantly record on 30-second loops, but the footage would not be saved until the officer manually turns the camera on.

At the time, Denver residents also raised questions about legal and ethical concerns surrounding the possibility of edited footage. Benjamin Donlon, a Denver resident, told the department before the body camera initiative last year that he wanted assurances that officers and their superiors would not alter video to protect their public images.

“The accountability process will be controlled by those committing the abuses,” he said, according to the Post. “I feel that is a problem.”

A range of organizations – from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Police Executive Research Forum – have recommended that police camera footage not be edited or otherwise tampered with if it is part of an investigation. But others have pointed out that editing may be inherently necessary given the day-to-day activities of police officers.

Officers often come into contact with minors, for example, or are called to intervene in domestic incidents in private residences.

The Seattle Police Department has tried to solve this conundrum by testing redacted body camera footage. The footage – released earlier this year by a local computer programmer – removes audio from the footage and uses software to blur faces.

Unfortunately, the redactions are so comprehensive the videos become “more impressionistic vignettes about life as a police officer than, you know, raw evidence of how police are actually comporting themselves,” writes Kate Knibbs for the site Gizmodo.

The videos, she adds, look like “surveillance conducted by a drunk ghost.”

Professor Burke says that, as a general rule, police departments should be up-front about videos if they are edited. There should be disclosures, for example, explaining if a video has been edited and why – similar to media interviews that disclose if answers are edited for clarity and length, or disclosures that a movie has been edited to fit into a specific time slot on television. There should also be multiple versions of the video, he adds, including the raw original video and, if necessary, an edited version that could be issued to the media or placed on YouTube.

“It should not be edited because it makes an agency look bad,” adds Burke. “If you look bad, then you look bad. Let's deal with it and try to make things better in the future, and learn from it, but let’s not hide it.”

Bland’s death by hanging in a Waller County jail cell, three days after her arrest, was originally ruled a suicide by the Harris County medical examiner, but earlier this week the Waller County district attorney said there were “too many questions” to determine how she died.

“This is being treated like a murder investigation,” he said.

For now, the release of the dash cam footage has not helped put many of those questions to bed. What happened in the Waller County jail cell, for example, remains profoundly unclear. But the ability of a 52-minute video of the arrest to only create more controversy raises its own issues.

“It’s not the silver bullet that we think it is. It’s merely an investigative aide,” says Burke. “These body cameras and mounted cameras in police cars should not draw more questions than they answer.”

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