Los Angeles civil rights leaders say a caught-on-tape incident in which police allegedly planted drugs on a suspect shows why public access to cops' body-camera footage is so important to the credibility of the justice system.
When Mayor Eric Garcetti first pledged to equip with body cameras all Los Angeles Police Department officers working the streets, he pitched the program as a step forward for trust in law enforcement. But the Los Angeles Police Commission in 2015 essentially adopted a policy under which the LAPD's default is keeping imagery under wraps unless the brass decides otherwise. Critics say that having devices that can record cops' actions without allowing taxpayers to see the results amounts to a false promise of transparency.
While the mayor has said of body cameras, “We cannot afford to sacrifice transparency to bureaucracy,” getting footage from the LAPD is difficult, and it only seems to come to light with the help of attorneys and journalists in high-profile accusations of police misconduct, which appeared to be the case when CBS Los Angeles obtained footage of the alleged drug plant.
Following a collision in April, 52-year-old Ronald Shields was charged with suspicion of hit-and-run and possession of cocaine. Body-camera imagery obtained by CBS Los Angeles' David Goldstein appears to show a cop who stopped Shields picking up a bag of white powder from the street and placing it in a wallet he indicated belonged to the suspect.
The camera from which the footage came was manually shut off but it automatically captured the beginning of the stop, CBS Los Angeles reported. Shields' attorney, Steve Levine, argues that the video proves cops planted the drugs. The LAPD has opened an investigation into the arrest.
In the wake of the news, Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable president Earl Ofari Hutchinson and Project Islamic Hope president Najee Ali are calling on the Police Commission to make all body-camera footage available to the public.
“You've made a big deal about using tax dollars to invest in body cameras,” Hutchinson says. “They why would you spend taxpayer dollars on video and not release it? You're trying to tell the public, 'We're transparent and policing by the book and have nothing to hide,' and you do not release the body-camera video if it contradicts what you're saying?”
The Police Commission last year embarked on a journey of revising its no-look policy after L.A. Weekly asked then-commission president Matthew Johnson if a spate of controversial officer shootings of unarmed black men across the nation should spur a fresh look at the rules.
The commission opened the process to the public and is still in the process of finalizing new rules. The ACLU of Southern California has suggested that footage of major incidents, use-of-force incidents or those in which a member of the public has alleged misconduct should be made available to all. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said innocent bystanders could have their privacy violated if all footage was released. And the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file cops, has long opposed the public release of footage.
The Police Commission meets today, and Hutchinson says members of his and Ali's organizations will be attending. “The police commission can and should give the LAPD a guideline for the timely release of video captured by officers.”