Virginia Public Defenders Get Time-Saving Bodycam Video Scanning Tool

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Written by Colin Wood

The Virginia Indigent Defense Commission plans to begin training its public defenders next week on how to use a new web-based software platform that can help them review countless hours of police footage, 911 calls and interrogation videos.

The training comes after the commission, which hires public defenders to represent criminal suspects across the Commonwealth, signed a deal with JusticeText, the developers of the software, last month. JusticeText was the subject of a pilot project in 2021, where more than 100 lawyers, investigators and Commission support staff found that the tool could potentially cut the time it takes to sort through audio and video evidence in half.

Devshi Mehrotra, CEO and co-founder of JusticeText, told StateScoop that this time saving means lawyers are better prepared to defend their clients.

“Police culture hadn’t really changed after using body cameras because police knew nobody was going to spend hours going through that footage,” she said. “But after we deployed this technology and started the pilot, Richmond public defenders began to come to their court hearings much better prepared.”

Mehrotra said audio or video clips uncovered by her platform can provide lawyers with evidence that contradicts statements made by police officers, who she says sometimes omit details from their reports, and dismiss cases.

“If you’re telling a series of events, you can mix things up, which in many cases of this nature can make a big difference and make the final judgment,” she said.

Mehrotra, who co-founded JusticeText with a University of Chicago classmate in 2019, said her company’s goal is to improve criminal justice outcomes for low-income defendants. Virginia’s 460 public defenders are employed, sometimes assigned to up to 100 cases at a time.

“Public defenders in Richmond were beginning to show up to their court hearings much better prepared.”

Justicetext CEO Devshi Mehrotra

JusticeText uses a speech recognition machine learning algorithm to create transcripts of any audio or video that users enter into its web-based interface. It uses natural language processing to recognize keywords in these transcripts and flags the most noticeable parts of the recordings for users, e.g. B. Mentions of drugs or guns or when an officer reads Miranda’s rights. The platform also includes a video editing suite to allow defendants to prepare evidence for the court and share materials with other public defenders.

“When technology is built into the justice system, it is always built for law enforcement,” Mehrotra said. “When you look at the state of the resources, technology and staffing of many public defense agencies, it’s really shocking. Our technology can also be used equally by both sides, but we deliberately focused on selling to public defenders from the start.”

Prior to signing Virginia, JusticeText signed contracts with public defense offices in Harris County, Texas; Orange County, California; and Washington, DC Mehrotra said she doesn’t yet have hard statistics on how her software improves outcomes, but said there are many anecdotes from users about how it saves time and brings better cases to court.

As of 2018, body cameras were deployed by 80% of major police departments nationwide. And 80% of criminal defense cases in Virginia involve digital evidence, a non-stop flow of information that only grows as more cameras are installed every day. In a poll by the Commonwealth Indigent Defense Commission, 73% of public defenders said reviewing body camera footage sometimes prevented them from completing other case-related work.

In video interviews with JusticeText, some attorneys praised the platform for its ability to save time finding relevant evidence and empower their cases. Tracy Paner, a public defender in Richmond, Virginia, one of the cities involved in the recent pilot, said the amount of footage her office has to review is “astronomical.”

“What’s really amazing is watching the judge’s reaction to their hearing, because in court we’re ready to play either the video or a clip to charge the officer and the judges’ heads kind of explode,” she said. “And you know, without that video, they’re always going to believe what the officer has to say.”

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