Crime Technology

Body Cameras in Rochester. 5 questions yet to be answered.

Now that the City of Rochester has accepted a vendor for the body-worn cameras (BWC) City police officers will be wearing, they should now be fully-ensconced in the process of writing up policy documents for their full-time use. This is according to the City of Rochester’s timeline of events here. The City offers many “model policies” as envisioned by the ACLU and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as actual policy docs from similarly-sized cities in the US.

But while we wait for the formal policy document to be announced, I’m left with 5 big questions about what I’m seeing.

#5. Who are the RPD’s policy-writing partners?

The timeline notes that throughout the months of January, February and March, “RPD is working with its partners, to include the Rochester Police Locust Club” to develop a policy document for BWC use in the field. The RPD and the Locust Club – cops and more cops – we know about. Who else? How will the concerns of the public, ably voiced in community input sessions, be represented in policy meetings?

#4. What makes video “evidentiary?”

Standard in the model policies is the clause that video should be kept only if the information contained in it is considered “evidentiary” to an ongoing investigation or trial. This makes sense. But the question is how “evidentiary” is defined, and in relation to what?

If a BWC is used in a traffic stop on East Ave while there is a simultaneous investigation of underage drinking on the same street? Does evidence get stockpiled in the name of the second investigation, at the expense of the people involved in the first?

#3. Under what circumstances can “non-evidentiary” video be reexamined?

The public comments make clear that local residents are OK with keeping video on file that is currently being used in an investigation or trial. They even seem to be OK with allowing non-evidentiary video to be kept on hand. The ACLU recommends allowing non-evidentiary video files to be kept up to 6 months. But why allow the video to remain at all, if there’s no immediate reason to find the video evidentiary? The obvious answer would be to reinvestigate the video in the event that some other crime might be solved with it.

By whose authority is that video reopened? Is a warrant required to reopen the archived video? Some other benchmark? In fact,

#2. Does a subject of a BWC video get notified of the video’s status?

We can guess that the answer to this is, ‘no.’ But that raises more questions. Are we all supposed to just believe that local police have disposed of video? Or can we be informed in keeping with our right to privacy? If there is a reason to keep a tape of a resident beyond the retention policy, that certainly seems like something they should be made aware of, yet doing so just as obviously could endanger important police investigations.

#1. Can policy ever match reality?

We invest a lot of faith in our institutions: it’s a cornerstone of a functional democracy. The effectiveness of local police is no less critically based on faith and trust – even if that trust is tested on a moment-by-moment basis. But a casual read of even the most conservative model policy on body worn cameras reads like a buffet of civil rights violation.

You don’t have to fear the “dirty cop,” the “rogue,” the “out of control sargeant” nor any other made-for-TV cop bad guy to understand that the models seem like a problem. A liberal reading of even the ACLU’s model policy could lead to perpetual video records of Rochester, one side to the other. Unless Rochester’s policy ends up being a lot more conservative than the models, how well or poorly body cameras are implemented is going to come down to trust.

And it’s trust that the body cameras are supposed to improve. A tall order.


Bundy in Captivity: In America, “culture” is a crap argument.

Now that it appears that the standoff in Oregon has already turned for the deadly worse and is due to get bloodier, we really need to put a lid on this “culture” thing.

If you live in America, unless there are some serious economic special cases, you are rich. You are educated. And most importantly, you have access to any number of different forms of transportation that can allow you to live anywhere you like. In or outside of America.

All of which is to say: if you insist that your actions are somehow normal or acceptable within the boundaries of your “culture,” that’s a crap argument. No, a mid-Westerner is not appreciably different from a New Yorker. A cattle rancher is not different from a web designer. What differences may occur between these demographic groups is not about their life. It’s about their life-“style.” They all chose to make a conscious choice about who they are and what they do.

We cannot continue to excuse bad behavior because of “culture.”

Crime Forensics Science

Stewart, Ward Jr and the forensic toxicology of weed.

On the evening of August 9th, 2014, an altercation on Canandaigua Motor Speedway’s muddy track resulted in the death of a 20 year old racer. The heavy metal I grew up watching; the mud, blood and dirt of of a small track speedway; the testosterone that drives so much of it’s checkered past and dominates it’s present. All of it met that night, to deadly effect. Last week, the Livingston County prosecutors, in acquitting Tony Stewart of all charges, charged that Kevin Ward, Jr may have had enough marijuana in his system to have impaired his judgement.

Common knowledge has it that marijuana stays in your system up to two months at testable levels. How then could a forensic test determine that Ward, Jr was high at the moment of his untimely end? Or is that just more prosecutorial flourish than fact?

The biology of pot metabolism.

To begin with, we need to understand a bit of the basics of how cannabis is metabolized – or broken down – by the body. There are essentially two major phases of this process which create two distinct metabolites: hydroxy-THC and carboxy-THC.

The first phase of metabolization takes the raw THC that the subject smoked, ate or otherwise consumed and creates hydroxy-THC (THC-OH). Basically, the body takes the THC molecule and sticks a hydroxyl group on to one side – a pair of oxygen and hydrogen (OH). This is a relatively swift process, taking an estimated 4-6 hours to complete. hydroxy-THC is not a psychoactive drug any longer, however, some studies have suggested that the “munchies” happen a few hours after smoking pot specifically because of the break down of this particular metabolite into…

Carboxy-THC (THC-COOH) is the next phase of metabolism. At this point, the body has added a carbon and another oxygen to the original pair, creating what is known as a “Carboxyl Group,” or COOH. Carboxy-THC is an inactive chemical, pharmacologically speaking, and more or less the end of the road of anything that looks like THC. But this is one of the chemicals that drug tests that you might take for pre-employment screening test for. This is the one that lasts two, three or more months in the body.

What does this mean for testing?

Because there are two distinct metabolites – and because one has a lifecycle of only 6 or so hours – it is possible to at least determine within a range of hours how recently a person smoked pot. And based on a comparison of the amount of hydroxy- and carboxy-THC it is even possible to determine just how high someone might have been at the time of death.

But there are caveats, and they’re important ones.

First, as with all toxicology reporting, a person’s height, weight, body mass index and general health all play in as factors in determining how quickly the body can break down hydroxy-THC. Also, because hydroxy- becomes carboxy-THC and a heavy smoker can be assumed to have high levels of carboxy-THC, frequent pot smokers are going to take longer than infrequent smokers to break down the hydroxy-THC.

All of these factors make determining exact amounts or times more or less impossible. For this reason, similar toxicology reporting has been either thrown out of court or else disregarded by juries. There are enough questions surrounding this type of test that prosecutors have so far had a difficult time convicting people based on this type of evidence.

In this case, however, forensic investigators have one major point in their favour, in that Kevin Ward, Jr is unfortunately dead. Convicting a living person of driving while intoxicated is hard, at least in part because somewhere between arrest and blood testing, hours may have passed. It’s just too easy to explain away a window of 4 to 6 hours.

But when a person dies, the metabolic clock stops. We can safely say that a person died at a specific time, and working back from there, we can compare the hydroxy- and carboxy-THC levels in the body and say that Kevin Ward, Jr was or was not high within a reasonable doubt. Thus based on the evidence I’ve been able to gather, it is at least a possibility that the prosecution’s contention in this case is based on solid evidence.

I attempted to contact quite a few forensics experts on this subject, but sadly, could not get a response in time for this article to be published.