Little Rock authorities failed to provide video footage of a protest in June in which protesters blocked traffic in the city after George Floyd’s death, frustrating a local defense attorney after being told the footage was no longer available a police server.
Michael Kaiser, attorney at Lassiter and Cassinelli, said police and prosecutors allowing video evidence to be destroyed are in violation of police agency guidelines and legal process known as discovery. He called their actions “stupid and disappointing”.
“I can’t believe they’ll let that happen,” Kaiser said in an interview. “I can’t believe they would want this because it doesn’t help them.”
Kaiser learned that police vehicles’ mobile audio and video recordings, known as MVR footage, had apparently been deleted after filing a request for the discovery of audio or video recordings made on-site, including video from dashboards or am Body worn cameras.
More than two dozen people were arrested on June 2 during the peaceful protest on West Third Street and Broadway in Little Rock. Protesters stood or sat in the street, blocking traffic for most of the afternoon.
Police vehicles at nearby intersections diverted traffic away from the area where the protesters had positioned themselves.
Little Rock police in riot gear finally arrived and warned protesters to leave the street. When the protesters did not leave, the police removed them from the street and arrested them.
On October 30, clerk Bradley Dixon at the District Attorney’s office, which includes Pulaski and Perry counties, emailed Kaiser that the clerk “had reached out to LRPD about the MVR and was informed that the MVR is no longer on the server, “said Kaiser, who was made available to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Without being able to see these records, Kaiser has “almost no idea what happened” from the police point of view.
The facts contained in an arrest report for one of his clients, Emily Nowlin, consisted of just two sentences: “Subj. Arrested for blocking traffic during a protest. Subj. Refused to leave the street . “
Nowlin, 27, has been charged with misconduct. A trial is scheduled for January, according to court records.
“Really, I have no idea what’s going to happen in this process,” Kaiser said. “Who were the witnesses who actually watched my client on the street? Who told my client, ‘Get out of the street?'”
In a motion for dismissal filed in November, Kaiser referred to the Little Rock Police Department’s rules for the retention of video footage.
According to a general order from the Little Rock Police Department, video footage must be retained for 120 days before the footage is deleted from the server, and police officers must notify a supervisor if the video is needed to assist in an arrest “or for other investigative purposes” a copy of the Order included in Kaiser’s application.
Additionally, in his motion, Kaiser noted a memo released in 2012 by Pulaski County District Attorney Larry Jegley instructing local police chiefs to keep MVR material or 911 calls in the judicial system until a case is closed, citing the routine defense inquiries.
According to Kaiser, the battle over video recordings has been going on for years.
“This is a big problem in the defense community,” he said.
He represented about two dozen people charged with criminal offenses following the June 2 protests. Some of them were arrested on Third and Broadway, while others were arrested later that night on charges of breaking a curfew imposed during the Floyd demonstrations.
Kaiser said six of his clients had filed innocent pleas and court hearings were scheduled for January. The remaining customers had agreements to dismiss their charges as long as they weren’t arrested again within 60 days, he said.
The Little Rock Police Department only recently began equipping police officers with body-worn cameras after the city council approved the purchase of 275 cameras in June.
Mark Edwards, a Little Rock police spokesman, did not answer questions via email regarding the department’s video retention policy and whether the footage was actually deleted from the protest.
Jeff Wankum, president of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, described the preservation of police records as a double-edged sword for clients.
Realistically, Wankum said, 75% of the time the video of a client’s arrest is not helpful in the case. However, Wankum said, for example, footage of a DWI traffic stop may show an officer falsely guiding a driver through field sobriety tests.
There are other ways for lawyers to get footage, such as requesting the Freedom of Information Act or at least sending a letter asking for footage to be retained, Wankum said. But if a customer did not come to hire him before the automatic deletion took place: “Well, then we’re done,” said Wankum in an interview on Monday.
In recent years, the Little Rock Police Department seemed to be improving in terms of footage retention, Wankum said. He didn’t know if the postponement was due to Police Chief Keith Humphrey or if something else had changed before Humphrey’s tenure.
Humphrey was tapped into by Mayor Frank Scott Jr. as Police Chief of Little Rock in March 2019. Wankum also recalled that a recent civil lawsuit related to the retention of footage may have sparked a change.
“But I know there has been a very big stink for years before Chief Humphrey comes in,” said Wankum.
He said the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers – his organization is a local subsidiary of the national group – had advocated more body camera and MVR footage documenting police encounters with citizens.
The idea behind the organization’s position is that the more transparency there is in government, the more opportunities there are to see when there are “people who shouldn’t be in positions of authority,” said Wankum.