Video evidence is a vital part of Use of Force investigations, but CCTV and other proprietary video sources can frequently pose technical challenges for investigators seeking to uncover the truth.
These technical challenges can cause delays during investigations, and when handled incorrectly can even change the appearance of truth. Perhaps one of the best examples of the danger an altered video poses to public safety is the case against an Ottawa police constable. In this case, a use-of-force incident resulted in an in-custody death that made headlines in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
In this article, we’ll explore the challenges identified in the 2023 Digital Evidence Trends Report around video playback, and demonstrate why it is so important for investigators to leverage the proper tools when playing or investigating video evidence.
Technical Challenges with Video Playback
How video evidence is played matters dramatically when it comes to evidence quality and integrity. Accurate playback is often a challenge due to the wide variety of digital evidence formats encountered
during investigations. While some cameras, like Axon Body 3 or Axon Body 4, record to a standard format such as .mp4, many CCTV and surveillance system manufacturers use proprietary file types to record video, such as .dav, G64x, .cme and countless others.
When leveraging popular tools like Windows Media Player® and VLC®, investigators frequently run into
playback issues with these proprietary file types. “File type not recognized” is a frustrating error code,
especially when trying to view a key piece of evidence. Despite these issues, the survey found Windows
Media Player® and VLC® to be the two most popular digital evidence tools.
What do officers do today when they encounter a video file that cannot be played? Many search the internet for alternative ways to play these video files. Aside from the precious time it takes to do so, this practice often alters the facts inside video evidence. One may not even realize that the video is being improperly played, and one can, unfortunately, draw incorrect conclusions from the video.
How does this happen? When software like proprietary video players or online converters process or convert unique formats to more common formats, the conversion and compression process can alter the video. This can lead to dropped frames, distorted aspect ratios, faster/slower playback speeds, and a host of other issues that ultimately corrupt the integrity and accuracy of the video and compromise the evidence.
Given these challenges and the lack of awareness, 91% of forensic video specialist respondents indicated some level of concern about video evidence being misplayed or misinterpreted.
Let’s take a look now at the Use of Force case to show how misplayed and misinterpreted video can create challenges.
Ottawa Use of Force Case
In this case, a use-of-force incident resulted in an in-custody death that made headlines in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
The deceased, who was involved in an assault before police arrived, is shown in CCTV video evidence and appears to be violently slammed to the ground by two officers as he resists arrest. An investigator played the video through a proprietary player and created a screen recording that could easily be shared. Based on this screen recording of the video clip, charges were brought against the constable.
At the request of the officer’s Solicitor, the video was reviewed by a certified and experienced Forensic Video Analyst, Grant Fredricks. Fredericks empirically showed that the playback software and the screen recording process used to support the charges had dropped frames, which altered the appearance of the speed and force with which the suspect was slammed to the ground.
When Fredericks played the original file through software designed to accurately play and investigate a wide variety of video formats, the observed level of force used was significantly less than originally thought; the deceased had not been slammed into the ground.
The original screen recording was rejected by the courts as inaccurate evidence, and the constable was eventually cleared of all charges.
While the Ottawa case may seem like a rare occurrence, our survey found that over half of forensic video
specialists respondents have been involved in a case where the frame rate of the video negatively
altered the perceived “truth” of the incident.
What Went Wrong?
Like most surveillance video, the original file was in a proprietary format that was not easy to playback. Without the proper tools, the investigator screen-captured the proprietary player and produced an inaccurate video that skipped a number of images and accelerated the perception of force. It is important to note that this was not an intentional act or effort to alter the video evidence, but the process used was not forensically sound.
This clip was sent to:
The media – causing public outcry.
The pathologist – affecting his opinion about the cause of death.
The courts – causing the trier of fact to review misleading footage.
October 20, 2020 – A Canadian judge found Ottawa police Constable Daniel Montsion not guilty on all counts in the death of Abdirahman Abdi.
Despite being rejected by courts, the news media is still using the video file with dropped frames that changed the perception of events. This is another reminder of why it is important to obtain the original file and software like Axon Investigate to convert it into a lossless, shareable file type.Once the wrong video gets shared externally, it will likely never go away.
If you are interested in learning more about this case, you can read the complete judge’s ruling
Ensure Accurate Video Playback
As we saw in the Ottawa case, the same clip produced with accurate tools paints a dramatically different sequence of events.
Investigators working with video evidence need access to software that quickly and accurately plays back video files in any format. With Axon Investigate, any investigator can simply drag and drop video evidence into an intuitive interface, zoom into the video, observe details frame by frame, and make clips for the court in standard formats.
Additionally, Axon Evidence users with third-party playback can load proprietary files into Axon Evidence. Our cloud-based Digital Evidence Management System will recognize the proprietary file type, and then leverage the same conversion engine inside Axon Investigate to create an accurate, lossless version of the video that can easily be played, reviewed, or shared.
Protect the reputation of your agency and your officers and get video evidence right the first time with Axon Investigate. Empower every investigator with the video tools they need to complete their cases accurately by requesting a demo today: