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Activists Say the LAPD's New Body Camera Program Is Full of Problems

Los Angeles just became the largest city in the country to outfit its officers with cameras, but police reformers say that the department's policies still have a long way to go.
April 30, 2015, 8:09pm
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On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Police Commission voted to make LA the largest city in the country to require all patrol officers wear cameras on the job. The new policy, which passed by a vote of three to one, comes on the heels of racially-charged civil unrest in Baltimore over alleged police misconduct and a nationwide outcry over cops routinely killing unarmed people of color. Police reformers have argued for some time that officers should be equipped with body cameras in order to document their uses of force and interactions with civilians, so this news seems in many ways like a victory for them.

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But according to some civil liberties advocates and LAPD critics, the department's body camera rules are riddled with loopholes.

The camera the LAPD officers will use is made by the folks over at Taser (the same company that manufactures devices that can shock—and even kill—suspects). It's roughly the size of an old-school pager, with a fisheye lens, battery, and memory all onboard; there are no clumsy wires leading to a camera attached to a pair of sunglasses, as there were in some older models of body camera. It hooks onto the officer's shirt, usually at the topmost button. But one of the most important product specs is the "record" button, which means that the cops will be in control of when the cameras come on.

The new policy states that LAPD officers will be required to record anything they do that qualifies as "investigative" or "enforcement," and are being asked nicely to notify citizens when they're being recorded. Of course, nothing in the rulebook says citizens have to consent to be recorded. No police officer can modify a recording, according to the rules, and they'll have to make sure their camera is operating correctly.

This feature is actually consistent with the ACLU's take on officer discretion; certain interactions, like those with victims or witnesses who are potentially subject to retaliation, shouldn't be recorded, the civil rights group argues.

Related: Watch our documentary about a kid who had a bad experience with California police.

The problem, police reformers say, is that the cops will be the ones reviewing their own footage, and that they'll be able to write reports after seeing the videos.

"It's absolutely a farce if the officers can see the video before they file their reports," said Joe Domanick, a longtime LAPD critic, journalist, and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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Investigators can theoretically deny officers the ability to look at the footage in cases where a criminal probe is underway, but when and how this will work is unclear.

"It really falls short on most of the issues that we thought a body camera policy had to address," Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, which does not support the camera program, told the LA Times.

Lest we forget, the LAPD is recovering from a serious reputation problem. As Domanick put it, LA cops have "a long history of officer-involved shootings and officers being allowed to get their stories together before their interview by internal affairs. This is just a repeat of that."

"It doesn't hold the officers accountable at all," he added.

The ACLU would rather officers not rely on anything but their memories when describing events in reports. There are several reasons for this, but one of them is that viewing the videos beforehand enables them to lie more effectively if they're trying to hide evidence of wrongdoing.

Worst of all for transparency activists is that the LAPD body cam videos are not going to be made public. Police Chief Charlie Beck has maintained throughout the slow lead-up to the adoption of this policy that he doesn't plan to release any footage to the public unless the department is required to do so by a judge.

That's in stark contrast to a pilot program launched last year by the Seattle Police Department, which set up a YouTube channel devoted to broadcasting a nightmarishly filtered video version of every single event recorded by the dozen cops outfitted with body cameras. Disclosure rules are confusing, with citizens using the YouTube feed to file requests for impractically large quantities of raw video. Then there's the lingering issue of victims' privacy, and whether people's anguish should be left online for all the world to see.

It's a complicated issue, and one that will have to be navigated as more and more cities across the country adopt body cameras for officers.

"I'm not saying everything should be made public, but controversial shootings should be made public," Domanick said.

VICE contacted the LAPD for comment about concerns over the new program, but they did not answer multiple requests for comment.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.