Boston Bombing Leads to New Tool in Digital Investigations

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This past April, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office in California made history by becoming the first law enforcement agency in the country to utilize a new system of investigating and storing mass amounts of digital surveillance materials, a concept that will very soon become standard at law enforcement agencies across the country and the world.

According to GCN.com, while investigating riots in Isla Vista, CA, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s used what’s called a LEEDIR — that’s, Large Emergency Event Digital Information Repository.

The idea is simple enough — in the event of a large-scale, public incident, a cloud-based digital system is set up for the public to upload various pieces of video, audio or still-images. Then, once in the cloud, a law enforcement agency can sort through and investigate every piece of uploaded evidence.

The concept of a LEEDIR has its’ roots in the tragic aftermath of last years Boston Marathon bombing, in which thousands of Boston citizens and marathon attendees submitted hundreds of thousands of pictures and video of the horrific scene that occurred at the finish line of the race to the Boston Police Department. Originally, Boston Police had encouraged people to do this, but once the materials started flooding in, they realized very fast that they were in over their heads as far as having the capability and manpower to sort through all of the materials. The FBI promptly stepped in, assigning some of the best audio and video forensic experts in the country to scour through the countless pieces of evidence, working hand-in-hand with Boston PD. In the aftermath, after the two bombers were caught successfully by utilizing these audio and video forensic experts, law enforcement agencies realized that they needed a more efficient, organized system when it comes to sorting through massive amounts of media-materials.

The key issue here is that most local law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the computing capacity to deal with massive amounts of digital files. Add to that the fact that we now live in a day and age where anything and everything can be digitally captured by anyone with a smartphone (i.e. everyone), and it’s not hard to understand that a local police department would very easily be overwhelmed by the amount of materials they could receive from an incident that happened in a public area.

To utilize a LEEDIR, a law enforcement agency has to meet two pieces of criteria: They can only set one up for an event in which at least 5,000 people were in attendance, and the event must involve multiple jurisdictions. Once those two pieces of criteria are met, a law enforcement official must then visit LEEDIR.us, fill out a questionnaire, answer the confirmation phone call, and at that point, the system will be up and running.

The next step (and most important step) is making the system available to the public through a simple uploading app that can be used on any computer or smartphone. Once materials are uploaded, the system automatically copies them into a single format for viewing, and saves the original so it does not get altered in any way. Then, a team of analysts sort the various pieces of materials into separate folders — for example, one folder may contain all images or videos of people wearing white hats, while another folder may contain only images or videos of people wearing bookbags.

Finally, once all the materials are uploaded and sorted, investigators begin studying each and every piece of evidence. And the system is built so that multiple approved agencies can have access to it. When the investigation is over, the agency can download the entire system of evidence, or choose to pay and store the files long-term on the system.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is currently in the process of developing a LEEDIR with Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) cloud service, and CitizenGlobal, an existing storehouse for digital videos and images.

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NCAVF is moving to bigger and better! (Change of address announcement)

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Dear Friends,
As of today, NCAVF has moved into a new location. Please update your info, and we look forward to having you visit us in our new digs. OLD ADDRESS: 9701 West Pico Blvd., Suite 207, Los Angeles, CA 90035.

NEW ADDRESS: 9230 W. Olympic Blvd., Suite 204, Beverly Hills, CA 90212

We’re excited to use our new location to provide better service to our attorneys, private investigators, and individual clients to enhance and clarify their audio and video evidence for court.

Our mailing address, P.O. Box 67704, stays the same, as will our phone numbers and email.
All the best,
David Notowitz

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Company Captures 1.8 Billion License Plate Images — And Will Never Erase Them

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Automatic License Plate Readers, or ALPRs, are controversial surveillance devices that can scan countless license plates and store the information. We usually assume city governments and law enforcement departments would be the ones with access to these devices, but in Texas, a private company is utilizing ALPRs in order to “revolutionize the repossession industry.”

Digital Recognition Network (DRN), based out of Fort Worth, has accumulated a network of over one thousand ALPRs across the country over the last six years. Based on this, according to CBS, “Chances are better than 50-50 that (DRN) at some point has taken a picture of your vehicle’s license plate. The odds increase to nearly 100-percent if you live in a major city or have ever gone to a shopping mall, according to the company.”

“Our technology really replaces the eyeballs of those people hanging their heads out of the windows,” says DRN CEO Chris Metaxes. And he’s not lying — DRN’s devices can scan about 60 license plates a second! And seeing as most of these devices are mounted on tow trucks, safe to say, the company has captured quite a lot of plate numbers — 1.8 billion to be exact. In comparison, “among local police departments, the Grapevine Police Department has the largest database of license plate reads with 4.7 million records.” And while most departments clear their databases after a year or so, DRN has never deleted their records in six years.

 Although some claim this is an invasion of privacy, DRN counters that by saying that they only collect plate numbers and not names. However, when a plate is scanned, the date, time and location are also recorded, and seeing as banks are known to pay lots of money for this information, it’s not too hard to add the extra step after-the-fact of associating names with the plate number.

One can’t help but think it’s a somewhat scary concept when private firms start using surveillance techniques that are used by the government and law enforcement. But until either federal or state laws start to restrict or prohibit this practice, there unfortunately is not much everyday citizens can do other than to continue to fight for our right to privacy.

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Wide Area Surveillance Secretly Tested in Compton, CA

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The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) recently listed the top seven mass surveillance tools being used by law enforcement, and through their research, uncovered that the city of Compton, California was secretly used as a trial location for a nine-day aerial surveillance program in 2012 — without notifying any citizens or even the mayor, Aja Brown.

The CIR classifies the program as an example of “wide-area surveillance,” which in this case, involved a manned Cessna plane (as supposed to a drone). For nearly two weeks, the plane “…recorded low-resolution images of every corner of the 10.1-square-mile city and beamed them to the local Sheriff’s Department station.”

During that period, deputies are reported to have observed incidents including “fender benders, a string of necklace-snatchings and a shooting.” However, this type of surveillance is different in that not only were deputies able to watch the streaming video footage in real-time, but they also had the ability to pause and rewind. A reporter at CIR, G.W. Schulz, describes it as “Google Earth with a rewind button and the ability to play back the movement of cars and people as they scurry about the city.”

The company that conducted the program, Persistent Surveillance Systems, claims that the surveillance footage was so low-resolution that, “…each individual appears as a single pixel — or nearly discerning enough to detect race, sex and other distinguishing characteristics,” according to Ross T. McNutt, the company’s president.

As for the concerned citizens who feel their privacy was intruded upon, the Sheriff’s Department feels justified in not notifying the public, seeing as citizens already had a sense that they were being monitored due to the fact that the city had recently installed several surveillance cameras on the ground.

Compton, which has long had a reputation for being crime-ridden, plans to install roughly 75 surveillance video cameras throughout the city in the coming months, at a cost of $2.7 million. The hope is that new surveillance will help deter criminal activities, along with solving crimes that are consistently committed. With that, it would not be surprising if Compton, or other similar cities with crime issues, continues to serve as a testing ground for new surveillance devices and techniques.

Some of the other forms of surveillance that made the CIR’s list include facial-recognition software, license plate scanners (or ALPRs), and streetlights that can record both video and audio.

As more and more of these militaristic forms of surveillance become available to local law enforcement departments, the debate as to their use and legality will continue to be discussed.

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Police in Georgia Experimenting with GoogleGlass

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Police departments across the country have begun to test and equip their officers with body-worn video recording devices.

But officers at the Byron Police Department in Georgia got to take part in a rare and exciting unprecedented technological experiment: This past September, BPD officers participated in a one-day field study using GoogleGlass in the field, and their results will surely serve as a case-study in how this groundbreaking new video technology can greatly benefit police duties.

By live-streaming the Google Glass footage to the CopTrax system, an integrated in-car video display system specifically made for police squad cars, officers were able to efficiently perform their duties without any hindrance or interference from the Google Glass.

Participating officers put the Google Glass/CopTrax systems through four tests, all of which would be considered routine in a normal day for a patrolling officer — First, officers conducted a standard vehicle patrol while wearing the Google Glass. Second, they performed several traffic stops. Third, officers made an arrest wearing the glasses, and fourth, officers fired both their pistols and rifles to see if the Google Glass affected their accuracy.

In the end, there were no complaints from any officers regarding performing their duties while wearing the glasses.

“Google Glass was not an impairment at all,” said Sgt. Eric Ferris, one of the BPD participants. “You don’t even know it’s on.”

The only issues that were raised were technical issues, most notably that the battery life for the glasses is fairly short. Also, the fact that Google Glass is currently for the right eye only could hinder those who are left-side dominant.

However, one of the technological benefits in linking Google Glass to the CopsTrax system is that the live-streaming footage from the glasses can not only feed into patrolling squad cars, but also to smartphones and tablets.

“Google glass works great being paired to the CopTrax Android app,” said Lt. Bryan Hunter, who supervised the September field test. “Being able to see the same thing the officer sees at the same time is awesome.”

As Google Glass becomes more readily available and affordable to the public, it’s safe to say that we will see more police wearing them in time.

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On-going Trend: City Surveillance Cameras Failing

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In Hoboken, New Jersey, failure to provide proper maintenance to city-owned surveillance cameras has led to an unfortunate stall in the investigation of a missing jogger.

NBC New York is reporting that 27-year-old Andrew Jarzyk went missing after going on a late night jog, and surveillance cameras that would have captured him on video near the city’s waterfront have reportedly not been working since 2010.

Juan Melli, a spokesman for Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, confirmed that the cameras were disabled four years ago after a contract expired with the company that designed and maintained the network, Packetalk, claiming that the city had a network of 10 surveillance cameras that were not functional. But Packetalk founder Tamer Zachary says, “I know for a fact it’s not 10; it’s absolutely more.”

Zachary says the contract ran from 2004 to 2009, and estimated that the annual costs for maintenance and upkeep were between $30,000 and $40,000.

“They always paid for the cameras through grants but when it came time to pay their maintenance fees, they decided to stop paying,” Zachary said.

Unfortunately, lack of upkeep and maintenance of surveillance systems is a common trend throughout the country, and safe to say, the world. Surveillance cameras are not just a one-and-done purchase: Those who decided to install a surveillance system need to understand that technologies and softwares are constantly changing, and with that, a surveillance system is only effective when it’s being regularly maintenanced, especially when it comes to a large-scale network. But as we’ve seen time and time again, city governments, businesses and individuals alike don’t want to spend the time or money it takes to properly maintain their surveillance networks. And in the end, we all suffer the consequences of this lack of attention, because suddenly when we need the cameras to function, they don’t!

However what’s most disturbing about the situation in Hoboken is that, according to the article, the city recently won a FEMA Port Security Grant that will pay for eight new surveillance cameras to be installed at the waterfront — but what about the fact that these new cameras will need regular maintenance?! The truth is that the city would rather not spend a dime and get a grant to pay for new cameras, then to spend their own money to fix the ones they already have. In the end, it’s temporary fix to a problem that will no doubt show its face again.

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Boston Buses Now Stream Video To Police

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Thanks to a new Homeland Security grant, public buses in Boston are receiving a groundbreaking technological makeover, one of which has never been implemented in any public transportation setting.

According to CBS Boston, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has been awarded $7 million to outfit city busses with new “360-degree lenses embedded in the ceilings and walls,” with some buses equipped with flat screen TV’s for passengers to see the cameras’ feeds. There will even be cameras on the exterior of the buses, however, none of the cameras will be recording any audio.

Although equipping buses with video cameras is not a new idea, the new system in Boston is revolutionary in its streaming capabilities: All the bus cameras will be live-streaming directly to the downtown dispatch Transit Police headquarters, which will allow police to monitor hundreds of buses in real-time. And that’s not all — 80 transit police cruisers are scheduled to be installed with touch screens for officers to look into any bus of their choosing.

“It is pretty amazing. You pull up the camera system, then you already have a description of the suspect. He could be looking at the cameras as you are following the bus,” MBTA Transit Police Officer Luke Sayers said.

As of now, 10 buses are currently outfitted with the new cameras, with 225 scheduled to be outfitted by this coming summer 2014. And although privacy is always an issue with the public when it comes to new surveillance technologies, in this case, it was actually the public that were demanding the cameras. Which makes sense, seeing as Boston is the most recent U.S. city to unfortunately be exposed to the threat of terrorism, following last years Boston Marathon bombing.

“The riders of the MBTA have been asking for cameras for a long time and we think that this will give them confidence that we are doing everything possible to protect them,” said Deputy Superintendent of the MBTA Transit Police Joe O’Connor.

The MBTA says this technology will soon cover more than 70% of bus routes throughout the city.

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Light Bulb Becomes High Tech Surveillance Tool

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The invention of the light bulb was a game-changer in human history. And although Thomas Edison usually gets the credit for it’s inception, the truth is that many people contributed to the concept, and for almost 200 years, that concept hasn’t changed much.

But take a step into Terminal B at Newark Liberty International Airport and you will first-hand be exposed to the latest ground-breaking technology in lighting, because not only are the 171 recently installed LED fixtures indeed very bright when you look up at them, they are different than any other light fixture in the entire world for one reason: They’re actually looking back down at you!

That’s right — Terminal B at Newark Airport, which caters to several international airlines such as British Airways, Lufthansa and Air France, is currently experimenting with light fixtures that are also video cameras. And they’re way more than that: Each individual light fixture is equipped with state-of-the-art microchips, sensors, and video cameras, and all them are linked to one another through a wireless surveillance network.

According to the NY Times, “the light fixtures are part of a new wireless network that collects and feeds data into software that can spot long lines, recognize license plates and even identify suspicious activity, sending alerts to the appropriate staff.”

For example, say someone leaves a suspicious bag in the terminal and it hasn’t been picked up for several minutes: The network of lights will recognize this and alert the authorities, which in this case, is the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, seeing as they are the ones who (for now) owns and maintains the data that the network collects.

The company that’s developed the technology being used in Newark is called Sensity Systems, but other companies such as Cisco Systems and Philips are already scrambling to get in on the market. “We see outdoor lighting as the perfect infrastructure to build a brand new network” said Hugh Martin, Sensity’s Chief executive.

The NY Times goes on to say that, “Sensity’s technology…would allow light fixtures and sensors to pinpoint a gunshot, sense an earthquake or dangerous gas, or spot a person stopping at various cars in a parking lot.” And in a setting such as, say, a shopping mall, “…the system could send an alert to a smartphone, showing empty spaces [in a parking lot], or a coupon.”

But of course, with new and emerging technologies comes questions regarding how our privacy rights as a society will be affected. Some are already calling for a policy framework to regulate the use of this technology.

Regardless, you can expect to see this technology slowly become the new standard in the coming years, especially as the software becomes more sophisticated and cheaper. Places like Las Vegas and Copenhagen, Denmark are already experimenting with city-wide uses of this technology, and at Newark Airport, they are already making plans to install the lights throughout the entire airport.

“No one really wanted the smartphone 20 years ago because they didn’t know they could have it,” said Fred Maxik, founder and chief technology officer of Lighting Sciences Group, which manufactures LEDs. “And I think the same is true of lighting today: No one knows what lighting is going to be capable of.”

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LAPD To Use Body-Worn Video Cameras

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TASER International’s AXON flex™ On-Officer Police Camera system with Controller, wearable Camera on Oakley® Flak Jacket Glasses

UPDATE as of 1-29-14: 

Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff has officially secured funding for roughly 600 body-worn video cameras that he plans to equip on LAPD officers as soon as this coming summer 2014.

“I thought it would take 9 months,” to raise the $1.3 million needed for the project, he said — and it ended up taking only 58 days.

Back in September 2013, Soboroff used his inaugural address as Police Commission President to declare that it was going to be his mission to not only equip police officers with body-worn video cameras, but to also personally go out and find funding for the project, purposely bypassing the slow, bureaucratic process of securing funds from the city of Los Angeles.

According to 89.3 KPCC, “the money came both from individual donors including Steven Speilberg, Casey Wasserman and Jeffrey Katzenberg as well as organizations like Occidental Petroleum and the Dodgers.”

“On-body cameras and the continued addition of in-car cameras are going to be an absolute transformative thing for both sides of the camera from a law enforcement perspective,” said Soboroff. “And I just can’t wait. Because when you get a real record of what’s happening it makes investigating a lot simpler. More importantly, I believe it’s going to change behavior. I think when people know they’re being recorded, their actions may be different, and the ‘he said-she said, let me lawyer up and let me do this and do that’ — I hope that those days get over quickly.”

Soboroff has also stated that he feels the new technology will save the city roughly $20-30 million a year in attorney’s fees and departmental time.

The idea of police wearing body-worn video cameras has been around for a while, but only recently have police departments across the country started to take the concept more seriously. Currently, the most common form of video used in police investigations is surveillance video, video recorded on smartphones, and of course police dash-cam video. But the idea of every officer having a personal video-log to refer back to is surely something that could be very beneficial to every aspect of police interactions and investigations.

However, going forward, there are of course going to be administrative initiatives to establish the rules of using such recording equipment, such as when an officer can turn the cameras on and off. Soboroff made a point to say that the operating procedures will prove to be crucial to ensure that the equipment isn’t used to simply document one side of the story.

Currently, there are several groups of officers that are testing out several different types of cameras to see which ones are more favorable than others. With that, there are still several companies bidding to supply the cameras, including TASER and Coban Technologies.

Soboroff hopes to eventually equip all officers with body-worn cameras, something he says will cost the city an additional couple million dollars. And, “If in their wisdom they decide that the city budget can’t handle it, I’m just going to go out and raise the money again.”

Soboroff has already established himself as reliable and a man of his word. It will be interesting to see the direction in which he leads the LAPD.

UPDATE as of 9-25-13: 

According to The Huffington Post, new Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff is claiming he is already making good on his recent pledge to raise money from private donors in order to fund a project that will equip police officers with body-worn digital surveillance video cameras and audio recording devices. Soboroff says so far he has raised roughly half of the million dollars the project will cost, from investors including media giant Casey Wasserman and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg. City Councilman Mitch Englander even said the testing phase for the cameras may begin as early as next week, saying, “We’re paying out tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits, and these cameras have been shown to lower that amount in other departments.”

During his opening remarks after being newly elected as Police Commission President, Soboroff claimed he would be bringing a new style of aggressiveness to the position, and already, it would appear he is a man of his word.

 

Original blog from 9-13-13:

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The Los Angeles Police Department will soon get a technological makeover, according to the new LAPD Police Commission President, Steve Soboroff.

The LA Times is reporting that a few minutes after Soboroff was elected President of the commission this past Tuesday, he used his opening remarks to bluntly call for the LAPD to begin outfitting their officers with small video cameras, saying the technology needs to be in place soon: “I mean within 18 months, not 18 years,” he said.

Since the infamous Rodney King case in 1991, there has been a push for the LAPD to implement video cameras in all of their patrol cars, but funding throughout the years has been a constant factor in hindering the on-going project. Then, in 2008, the Los Angeles City Council was able to provide enough money to install cameras in about ¼ of the LAPD’s 1200 squad cars, saying more cameras would be installed over the next few years. However, 5 years later, that original ¼ has yet to expand.

Soboroff plans to change that. At the same time, however, he understands that in-car cameras can only film what’s in front of the car, which is why he’s now pushing to put both audio and video recording devices on officers. As the article points out, “Having an audio and video recording of traffic stops, shootings and other encounters is seen as a valuable and cost-saving tool in guarding against misconduct and absolving officers when they are falsely accused of wrongdoing.”

Equipping officers with digital audio recorders, or “DAR’s” as they’re referred to, is nothing new. However, equipping them with video recorders is a new concept, only because the technology has finally come to a point where the video cameras are finally small enough and have enough quality resolution to make video an option. Many law enforcement departments across the country have been experimenting with body worn video systems over the last few years, and some police officers these days even personally choose to wear the devices, without the instructions of their department, in order to “cover their own tail,” so to speak. This concept is actually a major theme in the recent film End of Watch, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

But although there may be many benefits to officers wearing recording devices, the major issue yet again is who pays for it? Soboroff estimates that it will cost roughly $900,000, but claims that he believes he can convince private donors to invest in the cameras for the department, something that, if successful, “could bypass much of the city’s bureaucracy, internal politics and budget constraints that have hampered the LAPD’s in-car camera project over the years.”

And safe to say, there’s a good chance Soboroff will indeed be able to find these “private donors.” A successful and wealthy businessman, Soboroff was instrumental in getting the Staples Center built in the late 90’s (among other mega-projects), and most recently played a major role in working with NASA to get the Space Shuttle Endeavor permanently exhibited at the California Science Center. Soboroff gets the job done, and it seems he will be bringing a more aggressive style to this job than his predecessors. “I absolutely plan to bring a new approach to this job,” he said.

Watch Soboroff’s comments below:

 

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Video Evidence Plays Crucial Role in Kelly Thomas Trial

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On the night of July 5th, 2011, police officers in Fullerton, California responded to a 911 call that a homeless man was wandering through a bus station parking lot and trying handles of parked car doors. Police officers Manuel Ramos and Joe Wolfe arrived on the scene and attempted to question the man, but he refused to answer questions or even give his name. After searching his backpack and finding mail, ID cards, and other items that did not belong to him, the officers suspected him of theft and realized they might need to arrest him.

The suspect, a homeless man later identified as 37-year-old Kelly Thomas, continued to resist requests of the officers, got up, and began to flee.

The officers tackled the suspect to the ground, at which point he began to kick, punch, and even bite the officers as they struggled to control him. A third officer, Jay Cicinelli, arrived after the fight was already in full progress, saw his two fellow officers on the ground, and rushed in to help and subdue the still-combative suspect.

After several additional minutes of struggle, the officers did subdue Thomas. Thomas died 5 days later.

Through the use of numerous sources of video and audio evidence prepared by NCAVF and testimony by witnesses, the trial demonstrated that officers followed their training regarding proper technique when questioning and subduing a suspect. Yet, in this situation, as the video showed, nothing seemed to work. Initially, the two officers tried to subdue Thomas with their strength, but Thomas’ strength proved to exceed what the two officers could handle. Corporal Cicinelli then arrived and attempted to use his taser, but that didn’t work. Thomas actually fought through the shock of the electric current and continued to fight, seemingly unphased, and then grabbed onto Cicinelli’s taser.

Left with no other option and realizing that the situation was spiraling out of control, Corporal Cicinelli first hit the suspect in the arm — the arm trying to grab his taser — and, when that didn’t stop Thomas, Cicinelli made a split-second decision to use the butt of his taser to physically strike Thomas in the head.

Following the incident, as we’ve seen in case after case, the public was flooded with incorrect information regarding the incident. The police officers reputations were attacked. The incident was labeled a “police brutality” case by the public and the media, going as far as to call it a “beating”, with no real inquiry into the actual facts or chain of events.

Due to the public outrage, Officers Ramos and Cicinelli were charged in the death of Kelly Thomas, marking the first time ever in the history of Orange County that an on-duty officer was charged with a murder. Officer Ramos was charged with second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter and was facing 15 years to life in prison, while Corporal Cicinelli was charged with involuntary manslaughter and excessive use of force and was facing a 4 years in prison.

On January 13th, 2014, over two years after the incident and after a month of trial, Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli were acquitted of all charges with a unanimous not guilty verdict by the jury after only 6 to 7 hours of deliberation.

It was a monumental victory for defense attorneys Michael Schwartz and John Barnett, and NCAVF lead expert David Notowitz was honored to serve as the sole video and audio expert on the case for the defense team. The enhanced video and audio evidence prepared by NCAVF over two and a half years played a pivotal role in the officer’s acquittal and established that they acted reasonably and carefully, and that they did not intend to kill anyone that night.

NCAVF wishes to acknowledge that a family is grieving regarding the loss of their son. We send our thoughts and prayers to the family of Kelly Thomas.

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