The Obama administration weighed in on the battle over body cameras for police in L.A., and the Los Angeles Police Department won.
The ACLU of Southern California sought to block a $1 million federal grant to the LAPD to help fund its body-camera program because the department adopted policies that the civil libertarians felt were less than transparent.
It wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice that argues LAPD's plan not to release video to the public except when it sees fit denies justice to citizens and to the families of those shot by officers:
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.
The cash would have paid for only 700 of 7,000 Taser-brand cameras that LAPD plans to purchase for all its badges in the field.
The Obama administration thinks the cameras are good for justice. They can change the behavior of both officers and citizens in the streets. The DOJ yesterday stated that the nationwide body-cam grants, worth a total of $23.2 million, “require that applicants establish a strong implementation plan and a robust training policy before purchasing cameras.”
“This vital pilot program is designed to assist local jurisdictions that are interested in exploring and expanding the use of body-worn cameras in order to enhance transparency, accountability and credibility,” said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.
The ACLU wasn't pleased. Hector Villagra, executive director of the organization, said that families of those shot by cops, for example, should be able to view officers' body-cam footage:
The Justice Department announced funding for body-camera programs as a means to help increase transparency and build public trust. Yet it has chosen to fund a department with body-camera policies that are at odds with those goals and instead maintain secrecy and sow distrust.
LAPD’s body-camera program will provide no transparency, since the department has made clear it will not release videos of critical incidents like shootings, even where victims or families request it. It will undermine accountability by allowing officers to review video of an incident before speaking to investigators.
The department's main argument against releasing the video is that everyday folks who have to interact with police have some right to privacy. For example, if cops canvassing your neighborhood knock on your door early in the morning and you answer in your underwear, that could end up on video.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck also says that video in officer-involved shootings and other high-profile cases could end up being reviewed by multiple authorities, including prosecutors, police commission members and other officials.
The question the ACLU brings up, however, is: Do you trust them?
There could always be compromise, too. For example, the department could release video in higher-profile cases when family members of shooting victims or members of the media request it. It doesn't have to be all video or no video (or all video and just the video the LAPD wants you to see).
It's an issue that could very well end up in court. LAPD in this case is saying you can't see what belongs to you, the taxpayer.
The ACLU's Villagra says his group “has supported body cameras, so long as police departments adopt strong policies that ensure they are used to promote accountability and transparency.”
We'll see. Or maybe we won't.