This week, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) may join the ranks of major cities with a body-worn camera (BWC) policy when the Board of Police Commissioners votes on whether to implement a proposed plan on March 20. With just over 10,000 officers, the LAPD is the second largest municipal police department in the United States, after New York City. The department serves an area of 498 square miles and a population of 4,030,904 people.
The proposed policy mandates the release of critical footage within 45 days. Implementation of the new transparency guidelines would reverse the department’s longstanding practice of withholding all footage unless there is a court order.
Matt Johnson, vice president of the five-member, volunteer LAPD Commission, believes that the proposed transparency policy will “strengthen the bonds of trust” between the LAPD and the community. “The public was happy that we were going to equip the police department with cameras,” said Commissioner Johnson. “But they didn’t realize they were not going to be able to see the videos; they wanted to know why.”
If the LAPD Commission adopts the policy, it will join other cities with significant BWC programs. The Chicago Police Department with more than 7,000 sworn personnel, including all district-assigned CPD officers, tactical officers, and supervisors, is now equipped with body-worn cameras that were adopted following a highly publicized police shooting. The department’s policy
requires the release of footage from an officer-involved shooting within 60 days of the incident, with the possibility for a 30-day extension in limited circumstances.
The adoption of body-worn cameras by police departments across the United States was driven by the Aug. 9, 2014, death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old resident of Ferguson, Mo., who was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson.
The shocking events in Ferguson led to the expanded use of BWCs, and in 2014 President Obama proposed that the federal government reimburse law enforcement agencies for cameras, supplying half the cost of implementing a program
in cities. By September 2015, the federal government provided $23.2 million in grants to 73 agencies and 32 states.
The rush to use BWCs was meant to bring transparency to interactions between the public and police. But policies about the public use of video from BWCs have been few and far between, according to Harlan Yu, executive director of Upturn, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that technology in the criminal justice system supports civil rights and functions fairly for all people.
In a nationwide investigation
of officer-involved shootings in 2017, Upturn Policy Analyst Miranda Bogen found that of the 105 police killings captured by body-worn cameras last year, footage was not made public in 40 of these cases.
Among the 65 cases where the footage was made public, the median time to release video was nine days after the incident. In three cases, including the fatal shooting of Eric Garrison in Baltimore, departments released footage on the same day as the incident. In a number of cases (26) the video was released over a month or more later; civil legal action slowed many of these cases.
A 2017 Upturn study
of police departments with BWCs found that departments across the U.S. were moving quickly to deploy the technology and were experimenting with a wide range of policies. As of November 2017, of the 69 “major city” departments in the U.S., 62 now have body-worn camera programs with systems in place.
The LAPD Commission set out to justify enactment of its policy with a study of public attitudes towards body-worn cameras. Between March 23 and May 7, 2017, the Policy Project at the New York University School of Law conducted a study
on the proposed video release policy with 3,200 members of the public (including members of the police force). Researchers also received comments from 27 national and local not-for-profit organizations (American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, National Action Network Los Angeles, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press).
“The survey was conducted by the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of California at Irvine,” said Johnson. “It included input from community organizations (in addition to the input from the community), LAPD rank and file and the Los Angeles Police Protective League.”
The report found broad agreement that video of critical incidents should be released, but a sharp divergence between the views of those in law enforcement and those in the public as to when that should happen.
Members of the public favored relatively quick release of video — within 60 days of the incident (and many felt it should be even sooner). Those in law enforcement, on the other hand, felt that video should not be released until the district attorney decided whether to bring charges against any of the individuals involved. In Los Angeles County, this can take up to two years and sometimes longer. “When the report was released publicly, it showed overwhelming support (for the policy) from the public,” he said.
While Commissioner Johnson believes that the agency will vote positively to pass the policy guidelines, not all members of the city want to see it passed. District Attorney Jackie Lacey and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck have expressed concerns about releasing body-cam video publicly.
According to Lacey, “the Police Commission policy jeopardizes the justice process by exposing witnesses to video evidence before they are interviewed” by investigators.
Beck said that such public footage could block investigations, exacerbate tensions between the police and the public and may offer an incomplete view of the incident, according to a Los Angeles Times
While Johnson still thinks juries will still be able to do their job, “there is an opportunity (built into the policy that would allow) a delay of the release of a video related to an investigation,” he said. “This would be taken on a case-by-case basis.”