Are Police Body Cameras Pointless If the Public Can't See the Footage?

Are Police Body Cameras Pointless If the Public Can't See the Footage?
Courtesy Taser

The Los Angeles Police Department's policy on body cameras is anything but transparent. L.A. became the largest U.S. city to use the devices when it unveiled a plan to equip 7,000 officers with body cameras in 2015. It sounded promising at the time.

But the LAPD does not release footage of officer-involved shootings or other "critical incidents" without a court order. And in several recent officer-involved shootings — including one of a teenager in Boyle Heights — the officers didn't even turn the cameras on until the shooting was over.

Of course, the chief of police has the authority to override the restrictions and release footage, or some part of it, of a particular incident — which means the cameras operate less like a device for transparency and more like a tool for protecting the LAPD, according to Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney, ACLU of Southern California.

“[The police] withhold video in the vast majority of cases and release bits and pieces if it furthers their narrative,” Ochoa says.

When a divided Police Commission passed LAPD's current body-camera policy in 2015, the ACLU of Southern California publicly withdrew its support, arguing the policy undermines the spirit of body cameras.

But L.A.'s policy might be changing to make the whole point of the body cameras less, well, pointless.

The Los Angeles Police Commission is asking the public for feedback as it considers changes to the policy. The initiative is being led by Matt M. Johnson, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, who says it's part of a plan to increase transparency and accountability in the police department.

“The public’s demand to see this footage, and the reaction to it, made me start looking at our current policy and to reconsider if it made sense in this environment,” says Johnson, who was appointed president of the commission in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents Los Angeles police officers, says he opposes changing the current policy. "The problem with Mr. Johnson is he's coming in after we already agreed upon a policy," Lally says. "We can't be going down this road every time a new commissioner comes into place. There will be no end in sight."

Lally says a change in policy that leads to public release of body-camera footage could prejudice the public against an officer. “Who’s going to determine what does and doesn't get released?" Lally asks. "It could interject politics and interfere with an independent investigation."

Police Commission President Matt M. Johnson is seeking public feedback on whether to allow public release of video from body cameras worn by LAPD officers.
Police Commission President Matt M. Johnson is seeking public feedback on whether to allow public release of video from body cameras worn by LAPD officers.

As a first step to changing the policy, Johnson is encouraging members of the public to complete an online survey about what ought to happen when a body camera records an officer-involved shooting. Johnson says the commission will report on the results of the survey this summer, and that he aims to have a new policy in place by September.

The survey is being conducted this month by an NYU School of Law program known as the Policing Project, which has provided similar services to the NYPD and the police in Camden, New Jersey. Maria Ponomarenko, deputy director of the Policing Project, says of the survey: "It's been a little bit of a slow start. We are actually somewhat puzzled as to why."

Ponomarenko says the vast majority of departments don't actively have policies for release of video, or have a blanket policy of not releasing it unless there has been a court order.

There are exceptions. In Chicago, video of an officer-involved shooting must be made public within 60 days, and in Las Vegas it must be made public within 10 days.

The San Diego County prosecutor's office orders police departments to wait to make a video public until after it has completed its investigation and decided not to bring criminal charges, or until the conclusion of the case if it goes to trial.

For the majority of local police departments in the country, however, there is no policy, and the release of video happens on a case-by-case basis.

"What often happens around the country is they release video under local pressure," Ponomarenko says, "and then find themselves in the position of having to justify why in this case and not another."

The policy on body cameras has drawn renewed criticism in recent months amid reports of on-duty officers not activating the cameras prior to using deadly force. A recent report in the Los Angeles Times found that officers failed to activate the cameras in at least four officer-involved shootings since 2015.

In February of last year, LAPD officers shot and killed 16-year-old José Mendez after the teen was allegedly driving a stolen car and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at an officer. Police Chief Charlie Beck later reported that the officers involved had delayed turning on their cameras until after the shooting occurred.

Arnoldo Casillas, the attorney representing the Mendez family in a lawsuit against the department, says the failure of officers to record the shooting resulted in the loss of a key piece of evidence.

"There is a failure of LAPD officers to meaningfully participate in the video program," Casillas says. "There appears to be a culture within the LAPD that refuses to accept outside monitoring of their policing activities."


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