Recent fatal police shootings of black men in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, sparked protests nationwide due in part to one key element: video. Without it, we might not be having this national conversation about police conduct and racial disparity in law enforcement.
The Baton Rouge police killing of Alton B. Sterling was captured on multiple video devices. The aftermath of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights was streamed live on Facebook by his girlfriend.
Los Angeles Police Commission president Matthew Johnson says the Los Angeles Police Department's policy when it comes to body cameras, now used by about 1,000 of its 10,000-plus sworn officers, is ripe for a review.
"I think this is the right time to revisit it," he says.
The Los Angeles Police Department is in the process of equipping all its beat officers with body cameras, a move that will "strengthen public trust," in the words of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Police in four of the department's 21 divisions now have the devices.
The idea is that the public will be looking over the shoulders of police in the streets. But LAPD's body-camera policy contains a provision that almost negates the kind of transparency hailed by the mayor. The police commission approved a policy under which footage generally would not be available to the public.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has argued that cops are frequently in people's homes, and that private situations shouldn't be made public. But groups such as the ACLU aren't asking for all footage to be made public.
"Nobody is arguing that all body-cam footage should be released wholesale to the public," says Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California. "But when police take a civil life, when there's deadly force, the public interest in understanding what happened far outweighs privacy concerns."
Bibring says the commission should take another look at its body-cam policy in light of the police shootings in Baton Rouge and Minnesota. "I think the commission can and should revisit the policy," he says.
The bar for public consumption of the video, he says, could be set at use-of-force investigations or even instances of deadly force. "Another approach is to have police departments release it when there's a credible, nonfrivolous allegation of misconduct," Bibring says.
Situations where privacy is a concern can be addressed through pixelation, redaction and even editing, Bibring suggests. "They need to balance any privacy interest with the public's right of access to understand how police are operating."
The policy also allows cops to review footage before they commit to paper any accounts of their actions. Bibring says the commission needs to take another look at that, too.
"It doesn't promote police accountability if police can see the footage before they make a statement," he says. "Body cams don't build public trust" this way.
Johnson of the police commission appeared to be unmoved on the policy of letting cops review footage first. He says Los Angeles, en route to equipping another 5,000 law enforcers with body cameras, will be the first big-city department in the nation to have its entire street force of about 6,000 badges videotaping its actions.
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"The reason we were able to get to where we are today is because we had the backing and acceptance of our officers and the PPL," the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file cops, he says. "We wouldn't have that with another policy. It's more important to have these cameras on these officers as quickly as possible."
The commission president was more amenable to releasing more body-camera footage to the public.
"We'll be talking to the many stakeholders and revisit that," Johnson says. "I do think that a comprehensive policy that says you never release footage is not the right policy. It's my expectation there will be some revision to the policy in that regard."
He adds: "I could not be a more enthusiastic supporter of body cameras. We can't get them on our officers fast enough as far as I'm concerned."