MEDFORD, Ore. — Thanks to an unblinking eye, a glance inside a car during an unrelated police stop cracked the case of a home-invasion robbery that terrified a family of three.
The snippet of video from a camera mounted on a police officer responding to a complaint of marijuana smoke at Motel 6 helped send five people to prison on robbery convictions.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it key: a baseball bat lying on the front seat of Alejandro Medina-Mello’s Honda Accord. The bat was spotted while the officer grabbed coats with Medina-Mello’s permission during the stop, according to Deputy Chief Scott Clauson, who oversees Medford’s body-mounted camera program.
The patrol officer had “no idea” what was taken from the home-invasion robbery, Clauson said. The officer was being courteous in grabbing the coats because it was cold outside.
Detectives, however, found the bright green and black bat inside the car matched the description of one stolen the night of Jan. 23, when five men barged into a Morrow Road house believing there were drugs inside. After giving the mother two black eyes but finding no drugs, they left with the bat, a PlayStation and an iPhone.
The seconds of footage in a 32-minute interaction led to the arrest and capture of Medina-Mello, Anthony Michael Moreno, Christian Lamar Brice, Jabriel Aaquann Fleming and Alfonso Alejandro Kesler, all of whom have been convicted in the robbery. The case illustrates the impact of a sharable second look in criminal justice — a resource Medford has had only a year.
Answering calls for greater transparency, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office and Medford and Ashland police departments rolled out camera programs in 2016, joining Central Point, Eagle Point and Talent police.
With body-mounted cameras bringing police work into the 21st century, how is all that footage changing criminal justice?
SHARING EVIDENCE WITH A CLICK
In Jackson County, ease of evidence management and storage were key reasons JCSO, Medford and Ashland all picked camera programs designed by Axon, previously known as the Taser corporation. Axon’s cameras are sold as part of a service, with plans starting at $55 per user per month. Add-ons include unlimited cloud storage for $24 per user, or $29 for added database features.
Jackson County Sheriff Nathan Sickler implemented the program last year while working under former Sheriff Corey Falls as his operations chief.
“I can tell you in my experience that this system is really user-friendly when sharing to the DA’s Office,” Sickler said. “I would describe the process as very streamlined and easy to use.”
The portal is an evidence-management website called Evidence.com that makes sharing footage between prosecutors and partner agencies easy, Sickler said. Prosecutors and partner agencies can “download what they want from the system.”
In a December story, Sickler expressed concern that reviewing camera footage may double a patrol deputy’s time writing a report. As of August, the added time spent reviewing footage ranged from 15 to 30 percent, depending on the deputy and the case.
“I would say a good number is 25 percent right now,” Sickler said. “Now guys are becoming more efficient in the process.”
Last year, the Corvallis police department dropped its body-camera program because processing and reviewing footage added 2½ hours of time per case for Benton County prosecutors — translating to 144 hours per week, the Corvallis Gazette-Times reported.
Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said that although the footage is an extra piece of evidence for her deputy district attorneys to review, it doesn’t add a consistent amount of time, and some of the information “has been really helpful.” Heckert said her prosecutors treat the footage as a supplement during a case’s initial filing stage, while Benton County’s District Attorney wanted to review all footage before filing.
Heckert said that having all law enforcement agencies sharing information with prosecutors using Evidence.com means deputy district attorneys don’t have to switch between and learn different systems. Not every county has that luxury.
“That does make it much easier,” Heckert said. “We were lucky.”
Sickler said efficiencies gained elsewhere make up for lost time. He remembered when he joined the force 11 years ago, deputies were handed a stand-alone digital camera with a memory card. Cards would be placed into evidence and digitized on disc by records specialists in a process that took days.
“Now with Axon and the tools, our work cellphones are used to capture pictures, audio and video,” Sickler said. “Those guys did a lot of homework before they developed a system.”
Medford’s startup costs to power 85 cameras totaled $145,000, paid to the former Taser International and approved by the Medford City Council. The funds came from asset forfeiture dollars and an Edward Byrne Justice Assistance grant, archives show. Annual data storage costs after the first year are $116,000.
The 32-minute, 26-second interaction that led to Medina-Mello’s robbery conviction alone is 527.6 megabytes, but that’s not a concern to Medford because it subscribes to Axon’s unlimited storage plan.
Axon’s Evidence.com allows records staff to program how long footage is kept, based on retention policies and procedures outlined under Oregon statutes and in Medford’s policy manual. According to Oregon Revised Statutes 133.741, the minimum storage interval is 180 days. Records not needed for an ongoing criminal investigation or court “shall not be retained for more than 30 months.”
“We picked the vendor carefully for that reason,” Clauson said.
Police agencies, not prosecutors, are responsible for storing crime evidence until trial, be it digital files or physical items, according to Heckert.
Policy 450 in Medford police’s manual outlines strict rules related to the cameras. For starters, patrol officers are responsible for ensuring their duty camera is in proper working order at the beginning of their shift. Many of those tasks are automated, according to Clauson and Sickler. When docked, the equipment undergoes diagnostics, updates firmware and automatically syncs the footage onto a server. Though Axon designed the system, it doesn’t have digital “keys” to access Medford’s videos.
Though there are times when activating the recorder is at an officer’s discretion, cameras must be used whenever there’s an “enforcement action,” according to Clauson. Situations where the cameras should be used include field interview situations, traffic stops, activity in which an officer would normally contact dispatch and contact that appears to be turning adversarial. Once switched on, the recorder is to be kept on until the officer believes the interaction is complete.
Thanks to a feature known as a “30 second look back,” the prior 30 seconds is automatically added once the officer starts the recording.
“It’s technically always recording,” Clauson said.
Police are able to access the footage only on their duty cellphones, tablets and computers, and police are prohibited from making personal copies of duty footage. The media is allowed access to footage with permission of the police chief or similar authorization, the policy shows.
Both Clauson and Sickler said they believe the cameras have led to a drop in complaints, but both agencies won’t be able to begin analysis until the end of the month.
“We think there’ll be a reduction of complaints,” Clauson said.
Sickler said that the cameras allow the agency to operate more transparently. Sometimes complaints aren’t “completely genuine,” while other cases may be a difference of perspectives.
“The body camera takes care of those issues,” Sickler said. “It brings a more accurate closure to complaints.”
IMPACTS IN COURT
The increasingly common video footage hasn’t substantially added length to trials, but has delayed prosecution, according to Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia and local criminal defense lawyers.
“I polled the criminal judges and none of us believe that the use of body cams adds any kind of significant time to a trial,” Mejia said.
In recent years, however, Mejia said there has been an issue with police body cam video and patrol vehicle-mounted footage not reaching defense lawyers with adequate time to prepare, forcing defense lawyers to file motions to continue seeking new trial dates.
“Sometimes it takes a long time for the state to produce those to the defense,” Mejia said.
For defense lawyer Christine Herbert, one of the major challenges she’s faced are clients who incriminate themselves on camera.
“Sometimes they just blurt out, like, ‘Yeah, I guess I had too much to drink,'” Herbert said. “We call those admissions.”
One way it helps defense lawyers is when police forget they’re recording, according to Herbert. Sometimes officers will make a comment about a suspect to a partner, or other times will make a face. It’s up to lawyers to argue what the jury should see from the video.
“A prosecutor would want those cut out,” Herbert said. “A defense lawyer would argue it’s relevant.”
Criminal defense lawyer Peter Carini said the video is a valuable tool. Sometimes it helps give clients a realistic look at their case.
“Some defendants really think that they did not commit a crime and are angry with police until they see the video,” Carini said. “Sometimes it changes the client’s perspective.”
Other times, the footage corroborates the client’s perspective, particularly with clients charged with resisting arrest.
“I had a case not long ago where my client was contacted for drunk driving and he was an older man with significant back and shoulder issues,” Carini said. “When he was ordered out of his vehicle, he did so but pretty slowly and was told to speed it up.”
Though his client communicated that he had physical issues that made moving fast painful, Carini said that the way his client communicated his disability “did not endear him to the officers.”
“The video cleared him,” Carini said. “At least, it created enough ambiguity.”
Carini said that in DUII cases, the video usually “makes or breaks the case.”
“It is one thing to read the officer’s report describing the driving, the client’s appearance, speech and coordination,” Carini said. “It is quite another to watch the video.”
Carini said arrest video captured by a patrol car’s dash camera was key evidence that led to his client Mark Alan McAlister’s not guilty verdict in a high-profile arson trial stemming from damaged gas lines at McAlister’s former Little Caesars franchise in Ashland.
Co-defendant Brian Vernon Morris was convicted of felony criminal mischief in the case, while McAlister was acquitted on all charges.
In the May 2016 trial, Carini showed that a detective outlined his preconceived notions during Morris’ arrest video in a patrol car. During the trial, Carini argued to the jury that Morris used the detective’s information as hints to fabricate a “confession” that would curry favor with prosecutors and strike a plea deal.
“Fortunately, as more physical and actual evidence came to light after that ‘confession,’ the more apparent it became that the confession was not worthy of trust or belief,” Carini said.
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/