Should Obama Deny Funding for Secretive LAPD Body Cams?

Should Obama Deny Funding for Secretive LAPD Body Cams?
File photo by Taser

The ACLU of Southern California wants the Obama administration to deny $1 million in funding for the Los Angeles Police Department's body camera program.

The civil liberties group today fired off a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice asking it to deny the LAPD's application for the cash in light of the LAPD's body-cam policy, enacted this week with the rollout of the first non–pilot devices in the Mission Division.

The organization is particularly displeased with the department's decision to keep officers' footage from the public and to allow cops to view video before writing reports. The letter by senior staff attorney Peter Bibring states:

By withholding video from the public, requiring officers to review video before making statements in use of force and misconduct investigations, and failing to include protections against the use of body-worn cameras as general surveillance tools, LAPD’s policy provides no transparency and threatens to taint the integrity of investigations and undermine the public trust.  

There could be instances when video was made public, either through court decree or exigent circumstances, Chief Charlie Beck has said. But the new policy effectively allows a department and its cops to selectively release video media in order to influence public opinion.

It's something police have done in the past.

In the case of editorial cartoonist Ted Rall, a frequent LAPD critic, the department waged a campaign against his version of events in a minor pedestrian stop from 2001, traipsing out previously unknown audio of the confrontation with an officer. The offensive worked, and an impressionable Los Angeles Times dropped Rall from its list of contributors.

African-American actress Daniele Watts claimed that her arrest last year was motivated by racism. Lo and behold, previously unknown police audio of her dispute with cops in North Hollywood was leaked to the media. It revealed no signs of racial bias, and Watts was forced to apologize.

The selective releases favored the department. But what about when you want the public to see video that you think vindicates your side of things? The policy, drawn with input from both the ACLU and the police union, clearly gives LAPD an unfair upper hand.

The Obama administration cash is part of $75 million it plans to spend on such technology nationwide (a virtual gift to the Taser company, which supplies our cops with the devices). The $1 million sought by Los Angeles would pay for only 700 of 7,000 body cameras. Donations and city tax money would supply the rest.

Police Commission president Steve Soboroff says privacy concerns are the driving force behind keeping body-cam footage from the public. He says there will be situations where innocent bystanders might not want to be on local TV news.

That, however, hasn't stopped police from releasing video in the past. And for the most part, people who are in public who happen to be in the background of a news event aren't necessarily guaranteed privacy. We see this every day when we turn on our LCDs.

Soboroff makes a more compelling argument, however, when he notes that L.A. cops make as many as 2 million contacts with the public each year. 

"We're going to have millions of these videos," he told us. "The idea that we have to put a million and a half videos out in front of the public" is not feasible, he said.

Soboroff said he was disappointed that the ACLU would attempt to stop the purchase of 700 body-cams because it doesn't agree with a few policy points. He said the group, to which he belongs, gave the commission nearly a year's worth of input regarding the technology.

The ACLU said in a statement today that "the [final] policy that resulted from this process was sprung on the public less than two business days before the meeting at which the Board of Police Commissioners voted to approve it."

"They don't want us to have body cameras because we didn't adopt their policy," Soboroff countered. "To me, it's a little bit sour grapes."

The Police Commission leader said the ACLU is shooting itself in the foot: The cop cameras provide a lot of things that civil-liberties advocates want, including a reduction in use of force by as much as 50 percent and a reduction in citizen complaints by as much as 90 percent.

He said the commission will not send its own letter to the Department of Justice. If the funding is denied, Soboroff said, the city will simply have to cough up a million bucks and blame it on the ACLU.

"We've agreed to disagree," Soboroff said. "There's nothing to fight."

The policy, by the way, will be revisited in six months to see how it's going. If the commission is unhappy, it can and will make adjustments, Soboroff said.


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