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article / June 21, 2023

Why video evidence is essential, and so is its proper handling

Survey results show how video evidence affects law enforcement

A graph showing the survey audiences responses whether they agree/disagree that video is a critical source of evidence in investigations. 97% of command staff strongly agree.

As technology has evolved, so too have criminal investigations. As computers and cameras have become integral to our day-to-day lives, digital evidence has become an increasingly crucial aspect of law enforcement.

Among the many different types of digital evidence, video evidence is perhaps the most critical, as it is everywhere and can quickly reveal the truth of events.

However, video evidence presents a unique set of challenges for law enforcement agencies. Law enforcement officers struggle with a lack of cohesive standards across video sources.

Footage from body-worn cameras (BWC) is one thing, but the nearly-infinite sources of video evidence available to law enforcement today often produce evidence in formats that aren’t compatible with many storage and viewing systems.

Axon surveyed over 900 law enforcement officers to shed light on the practical pros and cons of video evidence, and the perceptions officers have of it across roles and ranks. Here’s what they think.

Video sources are on the rise

Today, studies estimate there are more than 1 billion security cameras worldwide. That number isn’t solely from CCTV cameras, as there’s been a steady rise in consumer-owned security cameras in the United States and other major markets.

Devices like Ring Doorbell cams and Nest security cameras have made video surveillance accessible to consumers, adding digital eyes to residences and private businesses. More of these cameras are on the way – the global smart home security market is expected to grow to $30.38 billion by 2030.

The amount of video is growing significantly. The global smart home security camera size is expected to grow from $6.51 Billion in 2021 to $30.36 Billion in 2030.

Why Video Evidence is Essential - It's growing The odds of a security camera recording a crime increases every time a new security camera is added to the digital fleet – which law enforcement may be able to obtain for use in investigations.

Four in five law enforcement officers report frequently encountering public video surveillance sources in the line of duty, while just over three in five report frequently encountering footage from smart doorbell cameras.

Survey Question: How frequently do you encounter the following video sources? The most frequently viewed was Public Video Surveillance with 49% marking it as "very frequently" encountered and 31% marking it as "frequently" encountered.

Overall, our survey found that 92% of detectives and investigators frequently or very frequently encounter video evidence in their work.

Additionally, 94% of investigators, forensic video specialists and command staff polled said video is very helpful or extremely helpful. These prospective digital witnesses are a massive benefit for law enforcement, especially in cases with few eyewitnesses or physical evidence.

Overwhelmingly, officers understand that video evidence is a pillar of investigations in today’s environment. That’s especially true among leadership, as 97% of command staff agree or strongly agree that video is critical to investigations.

Video introduces new challenges

Despite the broadly understood benefits of video evidence to modern criminal investigations, law enforcement officers have largely been left to manage video evidence with deeply flawed tools.

Two in three detectives/investigators, forensic video specialists, and field/patrol officer respondents stated they utilize Windows Media Player and VLC to play video evidence, software that has limited support for the large range of file types officers may need to view.

Footage can come from Ring Doorbell cameras, Nest video cameras, CCTV, cellphones, a dash cam — and so on. Each video source has the potential to capture a different angle of a crime, which is valuable in an investigation and the courtroom.

However, those video sources may also output footage in different formats, some of which are proprietary. Media players with limited support won’t be able to view those files without converting them, but video conversion can seriously alter the quality of video footage.

For instance, converting a file type can alter a video’s frame rate, which can make it difficult to discern crucial details and even change the way things appear.

Investigators are keenly aware of the risks of poor video conversion. Nine in ten forensic video specialists indicated some level of concern about video being misinterpreted, and over half said they have been involved in a case where the frame rate of the video negatively altered the perceived “truth” of the incident.

Survey Question: On a scale of 1-5, as part of your video review process, please rate your level of concern for videos being misplayed or misinterpreted. Result: 91% are concerned about misinterpretation.

A prime example of the risks an altered video can pose to public safety is a case against an Ottawa police constable.

A use-of-force incident resulted in an in-custody death that made headlines in Ottawa, Ontario. The deceased, who was involved in an assault, 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 Grant Fredericks, a certified and experienced forensic video analyst. Fredericks empirically showed that the playback software and the screen recording process used to support the charges had dropped frames from the video, which altered the appearance of the speed and force with which the suspect was brought to the ground.

In other words, converting the video clip’s format changed the footage so much that it created a narrative divorced from the truth.

Where video evidence goes from here

For law enforcement to use video evidence to full effect, they need the proper tools and training. Software that supports various file types, lossless conversion, and other features that preserve the quality of video evidence is a must for investigators.

On top of the proper software, investigators need training to use it effectively and efficiently. Axon provides both.

Axon Investigate is a leading platform for video evidence playback, equipping investigators with the tools to be more efficient and thorough with their investigations. It was built by a team of forensic video analysts and ensures that investigators are ready to present accurate, original evidence in court.

Additionally, Axon’s certified training programs prepare law enforcement to use Axon Investigate to its maximum potential.

Learn more about digital video and how different agencies are leveraging this essential form of evidence in the 2023 Digital Evidence Trends Report.