LAPD Cameras Are Rolling

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015 @ 11:25AM


Even as LAPD reports early positive benefits from its rollout of body cameras on uniformed officers, critics of LAPD’s tight hold on the recorded video are pursuing avenues to pressure the department to loosen its policy.

“Body cameras don’t provide any transparency, if the public never gets to see (the video),” said Peter Bibring, a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

By the LAPD’s count, more than 1,900 investigative and enforcement encounters were recorded in the Mission Station area since Monday, when it became LAPD’s first to begin equipping all its uniformed officers with body cams. In an era when incidents of police use of force have generated protest in Los Angeles and other major US cities, body cams have been heralded as a tool to increase accountability and trust. The theory is that cameras not only provide a visual record when problems occur, but also act as a deterrent to misconduct.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the body cams as an important step to ensure that “everybody on both sides is held accountable.”

The presence of cameras has already served to defuse tension during responses this week, according to Capt. Todd Chamberlain, commanding officer at Mission Station at the north end of the San Fernando Valley. Chamberlain cited a call to a domestic dispute.

“One of the daughters came out enraged, very upset, extremely aggressive, and the officer just made the statement, ‘Ma’m, I want to let you know this is being recorded.’ The daughter stopped her activities,” said Chamberlain. “It calmed down in a matter of seconds based on this new technology.”

Along with the cameras, uniformed officers for the first time are receiving department-issued smartphones as part of their equipment. The Samsung phones are loaded with police-specific apps, including one for viewing the camera’s live image, and also recorded video. Officers are encouraged to review the relevant video before writing incident reports. However, as a routine matter, the department will not be making video public, except through a legal proceeding, according to the policy adopted by the Los Angeles police commission last April.

The adoption of that policy led the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California — which has been an active booster of body cameras — to drop its support for the Los Angeles plan. Speaking at Mission Station Friday, both Mayor Garcetti and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck defended the policy.

Garcetti cited the domestic call as an example of cases where privacy needs to be protected. Beck expressed concern that victims could be deterred from seeking police help.

“I don’t want one victim to not call the Los Angeles Police Department because she is afraid that what she reports to us will wind up on YouTube,” Beck said.

Beck emphasized that other government entities, including the District Attorney’s office, will have access to the videos. In use of force cases, the videos will be reviewed by the civilian Police Commission and Inspector General, who Beck said would serve to represent the public’s interest.

In response, Bibring said the ACLU does not believe all video should be made public, but contends the LAPD should release video in cases involving use of force or other alleged misconduct, and that the eyes of appointed officials cannot replace the public’s.

“If there is a shooting in a community or police misconduct, the public deserves to see that video so they can see for themselves what their police are doing,” said Bibring.

An ACLU opinion poll found 70 percent of those surveyed favor public access to the videos in cases involving use of force or misconduct allegations. Bibring cites Oakland and Seattle as examples of cities with policies that enable public access to video in many cases.

In at least one deadly of police force case that has attracted public attention this year, LAPD has body camera video that has not been released. Some Central Division officers were already wearing body cameras as part of a pilot program last March, when a homeless man with mental illness, Charly Keunang, died during an encounter on Skid Row. LAPD said the officer grappling with Keunang feared Keunang was about to get the officer’s sidearm out of its holster. Beck and Garcetti said the body cam policies in Los Angeles would be reviewed in six months.

The initial 860 body cams and supporting equipment were purchased with $1.5 million in donations raised by the Los Angeles Police Foundation. Funding for the additional 7,000 cameras needed to equip the remaining uniformed LAPD officers by the end of next year has been appropriated in the current LA city budget, said Mayor Garcetti.

The federal Department of Justice is encouraging local law enforcement agencies to implement body camera systems, and in support, is offering equipment purchase grants. Los Angeles is seeking a grant to cover the cost of some 700 cameras.

This week, the ACLU sent the Justice Department a letter opposing any grants to Los Angeles until changes are made in its body camera policy. “Sour grapes,” said Police Commission President Steve Soboroff. Bibring contends the Justice Dept should use grant approval as a tool to encourage policies that result in transparency.

Federal guidelines for body camera policy were suggested by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing (COPS), based on research done by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). “PERF generally recommends a broad disclosure policy to promote agency transparency and accountability. However, agencies must always taken into account privacy considerations,” the COPS website states.

The ACLU also disagrees with LAPD policy to have officers in use of force cases view the video before making their initial statements. On this issue, the COPS/PERF guidelines appear to support the LAPD position.

“Reviewing footage aids officer recollection and leads to more accurate documentation of events,” the guidelines state. Bibring said that guideline reflects the point of view of law enforcement, and sees opinions evolving. Newton Station in South Los Angeles is scheduled to be the next LAPD Division to put body cameras on uniformed officers, starting Sept. 15.

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