Sgt. Dan Gomez of the Los Angeles Police Department’s tactical technology section holds out his smartphone to show the video he’s recording using the body camera on the front of his uniform. The camera he’s wearing is a small black plastic box made by Taser International, which captures everything in a 130-degree field of vision.
LAPD plans to outfit every officer with a body camera. The city council planned to vote in December on a $31 million contract with Taser International, which would have brought in more than 6,000 new body cameras as well as the weapons that made the company’s name famous. The vote was delayed when some council members suffered what they said was “sticker shock” at suggestions that up to 122 positions would have to be created to work on the videos.
Gomez says that one of the reasons the LAPD selected this model of camera was because it’s simple to use. “It’s a very deliberate act so it doesn’t turn on or off accidentally,” he says. The camera Gomez displayed is one of more than 800 the department has deployed, a number set to rise.
After each shift officers will slot their cameras into a docking station, where the video will be uploaded to a cloud-based data store called Evidence.com. Body worn camera systems like the one being rolled out in Los Angeles have been touted by the U.S. Justice Department as a way to improve accountability in policing. The tricky part has been figuring out who gets to see the video and when.
Gomez said that for KCRW to get access to the video he recorded during our interview, we would have to make a public records request. But under the body camera policy approved at a Police Commissioners meeting in April 2015, the video is treated as another form of evidence, which under the law doesn’t have to be released to the general public. The police department points out that’s the same way it treats the video recorded in its patrol cars, but the policy has given some supporters of body cameras, like the ACLU of Southern California, cause for concern.
The ACLU says that body cameras will only improve accountability if the public is able to see the videos, but that the current policy makes that unlikely. In fact, the ACLU maintains, keeping body camera videos out of public sight could actually undermine trust in the police. The organization is also concerned that officers will be able to watch video from incidents before giving their own statement when they are under investigation for use of force or complaints. Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, says that, at best, “taints officer testimony and undermines confidence in the investigation” and at worst “assists officers who are inclined to do so in lying to come up with a story consistent with a video.” The ACLU says they’re hoping the delayed vote on purchasing the video cameras will also be a chance to reconsider the policy more generally.
Council member Mitch Englander, who represents the 12th District, disagrees with the ACLU’s criticism of the policy. “The videos don’t lie,” he says. “It makes absolutely no sense that an officer would not be able to review a video and then write a report. The ACLU on this subject … is just wrong.” Englander says, “Officers are too often accused of doing or saying things they haven’t or the public getting a hold of a small video clip that’s out of context …”
Englander, who is also a reserve LAPD officer, has been an advocate for body cameras at the local level, and as a member of the Public Safety Committee for the National League of Cities. He’s also listed as having accepted more than $8,000 in campaign donations in 2014 from donors affiliated with Taser International, the company now in line to supply the video cameras.
The videos will help the city save money that would have been spent on costly litigation by helping clear up allegations of police misconduct quicker, says Englander. But he says it was the right decision to take another look at the department’s estimate of up to 122 extra positions needed to staff the body camera technology. “We could certainly have more officers on patrol in every community,” he says, “so we want to make sure they tighten their belt a little bit and sharpen their pencil.”
The council is expected to discuss the deal with Taser International again in January.