A deputy is convicted of violently taking down a drunken man, based on a grainy surveillance video.
Another is fired when footage shows him punching a handcuffed man waiting to be booked into jail.
Three more are charged after cellphone video shows the beating of a teen whose head was slammed against the pavement.
In the last few weeks, video has exposed alleged police misconduct in South Florida over and over again, showing how powerful footage can be for holding cops accountable — if a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be worth a million.
Lawyers say video has become increasingly prevalent with the advent of smartphones. But police’s ever-rising use of body cameras also is leading to a near-explosion of video evidence.
According to the Broward State Attorney’s Office, prosecutors logged nearly 11,500 body camera videos for use as evidence in 2016. Two years later, that number swelled to 120,885. Footage has been used to buttress police reports, persuade defendants to take plea deals and document what officers were on hand to witness.
But videos can raise as many questions as they answer. For every viral video that stirs community outrage, there’s one that provides defense lawyers with the information they need to get a not-guilty verdict.
“I’ve seen cameras be a curse and I’ve seen them be a blessing,” said defense lawyer Eric Schwartzreich, who often represents police officers accused of misconduct. “You would think video would make things clear as day, but people see what they want to see.”
Video is ‘not the last word’
Footage of police officers engaging in alleged criminal behavior has made national news at least since the 1991 beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King, captured by a witness’ camcorder. The video showed what appeared to be an undeniable example of unrestrained brutality.
But a year later, a California jury found the officers not guilty of all related charges, a finding that sparked riots. Two of the officers in that case were later convicted in federal court of violating King’s civil rights.
“That’s the first national story where people drew extreme opinions based on a video,” said Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Michael Dutko.
In the King case, lawyers for the defense played the video almost as frequently as prosecutors did.
In closing arguments, according to news coverage at the time, the defense called the video deceptive because of what it could not capture — the moments before the camera started rolling and the danger posed by an uncooperative suspect. It was an argument the jury ultimately accepted, and a tactic that lawyers defending police still employ more than 25 years later.
“I caution people all the time to not draw hard and fast conclusions from a snip of video,” said Dutko. “The video is a tool. It’s a good tool. It’s an important tool. But it’s not the last word.”
In 2016, Dutko defended a Fort Lauderdale officer charged with striking a homeless man at the bus terminal on Broward Boulevard. A bystander recorded the encounter on his cellphone, and prosecutors said the video showed the officer was out of line. But Dutko focused the jury on the same video, which showed the alleged victim appearing to take a swipe at the officer, who responds by loudly slapping him.
The jury sided with the cop, who was acquitted and got his job back.
Dutko’s law partner is defending one of the Broward deputies accused of battery in the April beating of teenager Delucca Rolle in Tamarac, another case where a bystander’s video led to community outrage followed by criminal charges against cops. That video shows one deputy pushing Rolle and shooting pepper spray at him before taking him down. A second deputy bashes Rolle’s head against the asphalt.
Four use-of-force experts interviewed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel reviewed the video and criticized the deputies, saying the use of force was excessive and unnecessary. But a fifth expert, reviewing the same video, defended the law enforcement officers, saying Rolle was interfering with police activity and seemed at one point to take a fighting stance.
If recent cases are any guide, both sides in the Rolle beating are likely to argue that the video proves their case.
Broward Chief Assistant State Attorney Jeff Marcus agreed with Dutko on the limits to the value of video.
“It’s an objective piece of evidence,” he said. “But it may not be a complete piece of evidence.” He compared the video evidence to DNA, which can tell you that two people had sexual contact but not whether there was consent.
Among the other accusations against deputies in recent weeks:
- Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Fanti was fired last week after he was seen on surveillance video punching a handcuffed man who was waiting to be booked into jail. No charges have been filed in that case.
- Last month, Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Jorge Sobrino was charged criminally with punching a man who was handcuffed to a hospital bed. He was charged with one count of misdemeanor battery and was suspended from his job without pay. Footage from his own body cam was part of the investigation.
The day after the Delucca Rolle video became public, Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony promised a full investigation. “It may take some time but we will be transparent,” he said, “and if folks need to be held accountable, it shall be done.”
Using footage for trial
In this month’s trial of Broward Deputy Justin Lambert, prosecutors and Schwartzreich, the defense lawyer, both relied heavily on surveillance video of Lambert’s February 2014 encounter with a drunken, belligerent man outside a Deerfield Beach gas station.
They played it. They paused it. They rewound it. They played it again in slow motion.
By the time the trial was over, jurors were convinced Lambert used more force than he needed to.
But even so, at least one juror disagreed with what prosecutors said about the video. The juror, who asked not to be named because she is related to law enforcement officers, said she did not think Lambert actually punched the victim, as prosecutors alleged. Lambert said he merely pushed the man.
It’s exactly the kind of question a video can be expected to resolve, but in this case, it didn’t.
Lambert was convicted because jurors agreed that the victim did not pose a threat that needed to be met with aggressive physical force, regardless of whether Lambert’s movement was a punch, the juror said.
On the stand, Lambert told the jury he wished he had been wearing a body camera, which would have shown the encounter more clearly with the added benefit of an audio track to capture the victim’s demeanor.
“I wouldn’t be here right now,” he said.
Lambert faces a maximum of six years in prison when he’s sentenced in late August.
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