Perhaps technology will bring us the innovation that protects Black people from police brutality and excessive force in the United States. If that is a possibility, Los Angeles might be the case study, using new-fangled Tasers that automatically activate police body cameras when fired.
The LAPD announced yesterday that it would be distributing 3,000 of these high-tech weapons to officers, creating a visual record by the use of Bluetooth technology every time an officer activates the Taser. It is a compelling development on an issue—police excessive use of force—that has roiled the nation since the summer.
The Tasers, called Taser X26P, will record the date, time and duration of firing. They will also record whether the Taser wires actually strike suspects, in addition to how long the thousands of volts of electricity pulse through them.
“The Los Angeles Police Department is committed to implementing safety measures to reduce the risk of injuries to both our officers and the members of our community, while improving trust within our communities,” Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said in a statement. “In addition to these new Taser deployments, we plan to issue a body-worn camera and a Taser device to every officer. It is our goal to make these important tools available to every front line officer over the next few years.”
“This technology gives a much better picture of what happens in the field,” Steve Tuttle, spokesman for the Scottsdale, Arizona-based Taser International Inc., told Reuters.
While most of the events that have enraged the public this summer were police shootings, there are many instances of excessive force by police officers across the country that involve Tasers being used on civilians, many of them Black. Just last week, a civil court jury in Los Angeles awarded $8 million to the family of an African-American man, Darren Burley, who died more than two years ago after an altercation with police in Compton.
LA County sheriff deputies admitted to Tasering, jumping on top of and punching Burley after they responded to a pregnant woman’s call that she was being choked on Aug. 3, 2012.
If those deputies were equipped with the Taser X26P’s, a recording of the altercation would have been made automatically, giving the legal system and the public more certainty about the details of police encounters.
However, although such a device could go far in reducing the use of excessive force, the LA police department recently revealed another potential problem: Chief Beck last month announced that after equipping 7,000 officers with the body cameras, the body camera footage would not be released to the public and would be available only through criminal and civil court proceedings. His announcement prompted an outcry from activists and civil rights lawyers.
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 problematic, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), the officers’ union, said it 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.“
With nearly 10,000 officers, the LAPD is the third-largest municipal U.S. police department, after New York City and Chicago. So a third of the force potentially will receive the body camera-connected Tasers.