ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Department of Justice has confirmed it is investigating allegations that Albuquerque police altered video of certain police shootings.
And recently released deposition records reveal new details about APD’s capability to edit video evidence.
“The Justice Department has received several requests seeking a federal criminal investigation into allegations that APD lapel camera videos may have been altered or deleted,” said Elizabeth Martinez, a spokeswoman for the DOJ, but she said the department would not comment further on the “ongoing investigation.”
Those allegations were made by Reynaldo Chavez, the Albuquerque Police Department’s former records custodian, in an affidavit filed as part of a lawsuit brought by the family of Mary Hawkes, who was shot and killed by police in 2014.
Chavez said certain Albuquerque police officers received training and have altered videos from police shootings, including the Hawkes shooting.
APD has said it edits videos to clarify them, but does not tamper or try to hide evidence. It also said it maintains original copies of all video evidence. But little detail has emerged about its editing capabilities or practices.
Frank Pezzano, an Albuquerque police detective and video technician, said police use multiple editing software programs. He said at least one software system allows officers to edit video evidence in a way that he compared to “Photoshop.”
He explained the software system during a sworn deposition testimony that was part of the lawsuit brought against the city over the police shooting of 19-year-old Hawkes, who was shot in April 2014 near Wyoming and Zuni.
He said he’s used a program called VideoFOCUS Pro and other software systems and compared VideoFOCUS Pro to Photoshop, a computer program that allows people to add or subtract images from photographs and videos.
He said that he would adjust, contrast, zoom in and out and sharpen images. He described his edits as “clarifications” and said they made the videos “better.”
“The same kind of things that are available in Photoshop to anyone,” he said of the software. “So, there’s really no magical way of clarifying, but anyone can do it with the right tools.”
He said APD has multiple ways to edit video, but did not say it’s ever done to hide the truth about police shooting cases.
Video editing software is used to enhance footage, not tamper with it, said Celina Espinoza, a police spokeswoman.
She also said Friday that the actual editing process is now being done by an APD officer who works in a lab managed by the FBI, rather than at APD’s crime lab.
The district attorney and Albuquerque’s Police Oversight Board had previously called for a federal investigation into the allegations that Albuquerque police have altered videos.
APD is one of the first large police departments in the country to equip most of its officers with on-body cameras. Footage from those cameras has been used to both exonerate officers of wrongdoing and as evidence against officers who have faced criminal charges for on-duty incidents. But the recent allegations have raised questions about how Albuquerque police edit and store video evidence.
Pezzano said during his deposition that in addition to being a detective, he took on a secondary role as a “forensic video technician” in 2011 when police began collecting more videos as evidence.
“APD in general, people that make these decisions, decided that we needed to have some sort of ability to process video, collect video and handle it,” he said. “It was becoming — at the time, it was becoming a bigger and bigger thing. Video was becoming more and more ubiquitous as a piece of evidence, and administrators realized the need to be able to handle it.”
Pezzano said that he did make edits, such as zooming in and adjusting contrast, to surveillance video from a security camera in the neighborhood that police obtained during the investigation into the Hawkes shooting. He said he was adjusting the video to see if she had a gun in a clip from a recording taken moments before her death.
Pezzano said he couldn’t remember whether he altered lapel camera footage from the scene of the shooting. But he said if he had made such alterations, he would have done so on VideoFOCUS, as opposed to Evidence.com, a cloud-based video collection system that police also use.
Having multiple software systems to store or alter videos could make it difficult for attorneys or the public to ensure they’ve seen a full log of everyone who watched or made a change to a police video, say attorneys in the Hawkes case.
When releasing police videos to the news media in recent years, Albuquerque police have made edits, such as blurring out the faces of undercover officers or children.
In response to Chavez’s allegations that the officers has altered video for the purpose of protecting the department, APD has said that Evidence.com would keep a record of any alterations and that the original video would still be preserved.
Pezzano said there also would be a record in VideoFOCUS Pro if alterations were made to an original. But it’s not clear where police keep those records.
Police have said that Hawkes was armed with a handgun and pointed it at now-fired officer Jeremy Dear, who fatally shot her. None of the video released by police actually shows the shooting.
Police have said that the lapel cameras of Dear and other officers on scene at the time of the shooting malfunctioned.
But Chavez, the former records custodian, contends police altered video from the police shooting of Hawkes, pointing to the fact that a nearby officer’s on-body camera video appears to be missing the first 20 seconds. He said the video should have had 30 seconds of silent video but the footage that has been made public by police only has 10 seconds of silence.
Espinoza said she wasn’t familiar with the specifics of what happened to that officer’s camera, but she said various things can happen to reduce the 30-second video-only portion of police lapel camera videos.
City officials have also said that an outside firm will be hired to investigate police video alterations.
Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, said defense attorneys are planning a conference on video evidence, which will include instructing attorneys on how to check to see if video evidence provided by police officers has been altered. “It places a cloud on any case that’s gone through this system,” he said.