The Los Angeles Police Commission voted Tuesday to approve a policy for equipping officers with body cameras, moving the LAPD a step closer to becoming the nation’s largest law enforcement agency to adopt the widespread use of the devices.
The 3-1 vote occurred after a sometimes-heated discussion over whether officers should be allowed to review video from the cameras before writing reports or giving statements to investigators following serious force incidents.
Civil libertarians opposed allowing officers to review the footage, though LAPD officials said investigators may prevent officers from looking at the video following force incidents that might result in a criminal investigation of the officers.
On another contentious issue, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck also told the commission that the department generally does not release video evidence before the end of an investigation. He anticipated using the same standard with body camera footage “in the vast majority of cases,” he said, but raised the possibility that he may reconsider.
“That is not to say that I will never do it,” he said.
The LAPD’s eight-page proposal comes after months of closed-door negotiations between the department and the union that represents rank-and-file officers, as well as discussions with the community, privacy groups and other law enforcement agencies.
The recommended rules cover when officers must turn the cameras on (before most “investigative or enforcement” activities involving the public) and whether they must alert civilians they are being recorded (officers are encouraged to do so but are not required to obtain consent). It strictly prohibits officers from modifying the recordings and outlines several safeguards to ensure the devices work properly.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California issued a statement saying the policy has “serious flaws” and should be rejected by the commission. If not, the ACLU said, the “LAPD ought to stop using body cameras altogether.”
“The ACLU of Southern California has expressed optimism that body-worn cameras, if implemented properly, could build trust between police and the public,” Executive Director Hector Villagra said in a statement. “But the proposed policy will likely do more harm than good.”
Specifically, the ACLU took issue with the proposal that officers be allowed to review recordings from their body cameras before writing reports or otherwise documenting incidents.
The LAPD’s proposed policy allows officers to review the footage to “ensure that their reports, statements and documentation are accurate and complete.” It further states that when an officer is involved in a serious use of force, such as a shooting, they are permitted to look at the recordings from their body cameras and those of others — but only after being authorized by the investigator assigned to the case.
Those guidelines generally align with recommendations made in a 2014 report by a national police research group, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Justice.
But Villagra said letting officers review their footage could taint their recollection of the incident or allow them to change their stories to fit what is depicted on the recording.
The ACLU also criticized the policy for not fully addressing whether the public will be granted access to the footage. The proposed rules specifically prohibit officers from leaking the recordings but do not stipulate whether the department will publicly release video.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said that he did not intend to release body camera footage unless required by a court proceeding, saying he considered the recordings evidence and exempt from California’s public records law. Critics have said that would undermine the idea that the cameras would improve transparency and accountability.
Attorneys representing The Times have called on the department to allow the public release of footage. The LAPD declined to comment on the ACLU’s statements Monday, citing the upcoming Police Commission meeting.
Police Commission President Steve Soboroff, who said he supported the proposed policy, stressed that the ACLU had been involved in discussions with the LAPD about the body cameras, calling its input valuable. But, he said, it wasn’t practical to toss out the entire recommended policy because one group wasn’t fully satisfied with the results.
Soboroff said he planned to ask the inspector general to look into how the cameras are implemented and report to the commission every six months. When changes are needed, he said, updates will be made.
“Technology’s going to change quickly, experiences are going to change quickly, and there very well may be changes in this policy. It’s not in marble. It’s basically in pencil,” Soboroff said. “The idea of starting something with the flexibility of improving it, versus forgetting about it because one party or two parties didn’t get 100% of what they wanted, is just not an option.”
Craig Lally, president of the union that represents rank-and-file officers, said in a statement that he was “confident that the policy as drafted balances everyone’s rights and interests — the officers, the department, the city and the community.”
Police use of body cameras has drawn significant attention in recent months amid a heated national conversation about police and the use of deadly force, particularly against black men. Advocates say the cameras will help bring clarity to controversial officer-civilian encounters, guard against officer misconduct and help clear those falsely accused of wrongdoing.
In December, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that the city would purchase about 7,000 devices for the LAPD’s use. Before then, private funds were being raised to pay for a much smaller number of cameras — 860 devices that the LAPD received last month.
If the officers are trained on schedule, department officials said they anticipate rolling out the cameras as early as this summer.
article by Kate Mather via latimes.com
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