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In the wake of high-profile killings and abuse by police officers over the past few years, the public has come to expect that officers will be equipped with body-worn cameras (BWCs). These cameras capture and preserve encounters between police and civilians, and the footage they record often becomes critical evidence in criminal, civil, or administrative proceedings. Reformers believe BWCs can improve police accountability, build public trust in police, and potentially reform police behavior.

Considering the reliance on BWCs, a key question has emerged: should officers be allowed to review BWC footage before preparing a report or giving a statement, or only after doing so? The question comes as policymakers across the country, from the White House to local municipalities, are attempting to reform criminal justice policy. Given that police departments design their internal policies, it is perhaps unsurprising that most of the nation’s largest police departments using BWCs permit their officers, in most instances, to view the footage before writing an incident report. But this policy has profound negative consequences, both for the accuracy of police reports and the potential for police accountability. As cognitive science recognizes, an officer’s memory of an incident is susceptible to being altered by details in BWC footage that the officer may not have noticed or remembered. These differences could be legally and factually significant. Moreover, permitting officers to view BWC footage before writing their reports undermines public confidence that officers will be truthful in memorializing their own perception of events. Access and exposure to the footage creates the appearance, if not the likelihood, that an officer will conform their report to match the recording.

Police departments should instead adopt a “write first, then watch” policy. This approach fulfills two objectives: first, it memorializes the officer’s unaltered recollection, preserving the officer’s state of mind at the time of the event; second, it assures transparency by denying a percipient witness to an event access to other evidence in a case before they have memorialized their own recollection of events. Under this policy, officers would be permitted to write supplemental reports only after viewing BWC footage, for the purpose of providing additional details or explain why their recollections differed from the footage. Each report would be distinguishable, eliminating any concern that the footage would affect the officer’s initial report. This procedure ensures accuracy and accountability in an adversarial system.


Originally published by the American Criminal Law Review in 2024.