A crucial debate is raging in Los Angeles over police body cameras that could render the cameras virtually useless in preventing police brutality and excessive use of force—problems that everybody from President Obama down to grassroots activists and protesters are hoping the cameras might go far in solving.
The Los Angeles Police Department, the second largest force in the country, is in the process of outfitting 7,000 officers with body cameras. But when LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck recently announced that the footage would not be released to the public and would be available only through criminal and civil court proceedings, activists and civil rights lawyers predictably reacted with outrage.
One of the most outspoken critics, the American Civil Liberties Union, says that if officers know the body camera footage won’t be seen unless it’s in a court of law where the prosecutors are likely to be on their side or in a civil suit where they are being challenged, it will render the cameras virtually useless—or even worse, as the ACLU claims, as a tool “to assist in cover-ups.”
To make the policy even more questionable, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), the officers’ union, wants officers to be able to review the videos before writing up their reports.
“That would be a ridiculous policy,” Peter Bibring, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney, told the LA Weekly. “They’re less likely to lie if they don’t know what the video caught and what it didn’t. This is enormously important. It’s the difference between this being a tool to promote accountability and this being a tool to assist in cover-ups.“
Concerned about the LAPD having exclusive access to the tape, the ACLU is wary of the potential distribution of footage to sites like YouTube and TMZ and the possibility that police could pass video around department for the amusement of officers.
The police union claims it is just concerned about accuracy.
“We believe that our officers have not only a duty to be accurate, but a right to be accurate,” the union argued. “To that end, the review of video and/or audio evidence before writing reports, testifying, or submitting to interviews [is] not only important, but vital to that goal.”
LA police officials may be proceeding with such a policy because of what is going on in Seattle. An incredibly expensive video records request may have brought plans for police body cameras in Seattle to a screeching halt. Just as the Seattle Police Department was preparing to have about 1,000 officers suited up with body cameras by 2016, an anonymous computer programmer, who runs a YouTube channel dedicated to revealing 911 calls, surveillance and police videos, placed a request for daily updates on the police videos. The department says it doesn’t have enough money or staff to fulfill such a request, putting the program in jeopardy.
LAPD is getting its first 800 cameras through the private donations of 22 citizens like director Steven Spielberg and the LA Dodgers organization, at a cost of $1.5 million, according to a report on Tech Dirt.