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Be dispassionate when analyzing video evidence: Plaxton

There can be a big difference between what is seen and what actually happened when it comes to video evidence, Crystal Beach, Ont. forensic video analyst Michael Plaxton tells

Plaxton, principal of New Media Forensics, a company which provides expert video analysis for both Crown and defence clients, says video evidence might seem conclusive but a closer look can often reveal aspects missed by the casual observer.

Using an Edmonton case as an example, Plaxton broke down a video that showed a man being beaten by officers after a police chase.

CBC reports a man was driving a stolen truck while being pursued by a police helicopter. He drove through red lights, on the wrong side of the road, with headlights out, at speeds in excess of 170 kilometres per hour, the report states.

Video shot from a helicopter camera showed that when police were able to stop the truck, the suspect got out, walked a few feet then laid on his stomach with his hands behind his back, according to the CBC report.

At least 15 officers rushed to the man, who was repeatedly punched and kicked to the head and body in the 38-second attack, reports the CBC.

After weighing all the evidence against the officers — including witness statements, audio and video recordings — a prosecutor determined there was no reasonable likelihood of a conviction, although a Mountie is being investigated for alleged breaches of the RCMP code of conduct, according to the CBC.

Plaxton says while “the video from the helicopter shows the event quite well, it is possible to miss so many details” in any footage until it is broken down.

“There’s a lot of things I wouldn't say 'absolutely, that’s what happened,'” he says.

It’s not uncommon to overlook something, or even misinterpret what has occurred in a video involving multiple participants, Plaxton says.

“When a layman looks at a video, and there are 10 people doing different things, your eye goes from one to the other and back, and you miss something that happened over there because you were looking over here,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons an expert witness is essential to walk the triers of fact through a video.”

Plaxton says he “cleans up” a video to get as much detail as possible then analyzes the footage “several hundred times,” separating each individual’s actions. He adds it is important to give a “dispassionate interpretation” of the events.

“I'm only looking at what the video actually shows. We avoid giving testimony about things like the emotional state of the person in the video,” Plaxton says. “I wouldn't get on the stand, or write in a report, that a person appeared to be angry, for example.”

He says context is also important. While it might give an overall view of the occurrence, critical details could be overlooked, or may not be entirely visible.

“So you’re thinking, ‘Wow, that's aggressive, that guy is really angry,'” Plaxton says. “But the reality is you're making a value judgment based on what you're seeing.”

He says you may not hear what is going on. As well, camera angles and the quality of the video might not show everything that those involved in the incident have witnessed.

“It’s from far enough away that you can't say with any certainty that the guy on the ground may have made a move, say, toward his belt, which could’ve been misinterpreted by the officer in the heat of the moment that the suspect may have a weapon,” Plaxton says.

He says it’s important to remember “the analysis of the video has to be the video and only the video.”

“It’s simply a matter of keeping your normal sort of emotional reaction to what you're seeing out of it, and just describing the event,” Plaxton says. “I think the lesson here is not to jump to conclusions when you do have video evidence. You should have it examined properly.”

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