Los Angeles Votes to Open Police Shooting Footage to Public

The decision on the part of the Police Commission marks and end to years of sealing footage of police-involved shootings.

by Kate Mather, Los Angeles Times / March 21, 2018
Vice President police commission Matt Johnson, left, and Steve Soboroff, President of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, confer at the Police Commission meeting where they approved a new policy Tuesday March 20, 2018 requiring the Los Angeles Police Department to release video of "critical incidents" involving the police, reversing a years-long practice by the LAPD of keeping footage from body cameras, police cars and other sources under wraps. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times/TNS) TNS

(TNS) — LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Department’s years-long practice of keeping video from body cameras and patrol cars under wraps will soon end after the agency’s civilian bosses approved a policy Tuesday that requires the release of recordings in the future.

The 4-0 vote by the Police Commission marks a dramatic about-face for a department that refused to release such footage even as it rolled out thousands of body cameras to officers across the city in recent years.

The new approach will give the public a firsthand look at some of the most crucial moments involving the LAPD, including shootings by officers, deaths that occur in their custody and other encounters when they use force that kills or seriously injures someone.

“The public has a right to see these videos,” said Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith, who helped draft the policy. “I hope it informs a more informed public debate about policing today.”

The implications could be felt beyond Los Angeles. Law enforcement agencies across the country are still struggling with when and how to release video — if at all. In California, lawmakers’ attempts at a statewide answer have repeatedly stalled, leaving a patchwork of policies with varying degrees of transparency.

Matt Johnson, the commission’s vice president who also helped write the new rules, said he and others hoped the LAPD’s approach would become a model for other law enforcement agencies.

“I think this will go a long way in helping build public trust through a significant increase in transparency,” he said.

Video can be a crucial piece of evidence in encounters involving police officers, both for those investigating the incidents and for outsiders interested in how they unfolded. For many, the release of those recordings offers residents the chance to see for themselves exactly what happened, rather than rely on sometimes-conflicting accounts from police and witnesses.

But opponents fear that making such footage public could thwart an investigation, inflame tensions between the public and the police or, as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said, offer a limited, incomplete snapshot of an incident if other evidence isn’t also shared.

The policy calls for the release of other evidence along with the video — information that until now the public could only read about in a report summarizing an incident that typically is published about a year after it occurs. That information could include recordings of 911 calls, toxicology reports, photos of the scene or details about the weapons used, Beck said.

Under the new rules for the LAPD, video from “critical incidents” involving the police would automatically become public within 45 days after they occur. The Police Commission or police chief could also opt to release video from other encounters if they decided doing so was “in the public interest.”

The policy extends beyond video captured by police cameras. Other images the LAPD has of such incidents, including recordings from security cameras or bystanders’ cellphones, will also be released.

There is also a caveat that allows the release to be delayed if the police chief and two police commissioners unanimously decide there is a valid, and specific, reason for doing so.

Beck said that what gave him pause was the question of whether releasing a video would threaten a prosecution against anyone involved in the incident, officer or civilian. But he stressed he believed that in the vast majority of cases the 45-day window offered authorities “plenty of time” to build their cases and still make the video public.

“I would anticipate that this is a caveat that gets used very rarely,” he told reporters.

In an email campaign and again at Tuesday’s meeting, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California pressed the commission to amend the policy to include a 90-day cap on delaying any release, expressing concern that the exception will be overused.

“The department has routinely withheld video on grounds that it will interfere with ongoing investigations,” staff attorney Melanie Ochoa told commissioners before their vote. “We want to make sure this does not occur under the new policy as well.”

Overall, Ochoa said, reversing the LAPD’s past practice and allowing the release of video “can be an important step towards greater transparency.”

The public has seen glimpses of LAPD body camera footage recently — from a deadly police shooting on skid row and a hit-and-run investigation that prompted allegations of officer misconduct — but only after the recordings became part of a court case and were published by news outlets. Earlier this month, the district attorney’s office released video from a police shooting for the first time when prosecutors announced they would not charge an LAPD officer who killed a homeless man near the Venice boardwalk in 2015.

The shooting in Venice, Beck said, was only one of a few instances in which he would have felt strongly about delaying the release of the video.

“On those one-in-1,000 instances where I think there might be a criminal prosecution of a police officer, I think we need to understand that we can’t jeopardize that,” he said.

The new disclosure rules were a year in the making. The panel brought in a group from the New York University School of Law to collect feedback. The results indicated broad support — from both the public and police — for making the footage public.

The LAPD and the union representing rank-and-file officers were also consulted. So was Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who had harsh words for the proposal now on the table.

Lacey laid out her position in a memo last year, saying her office would not publicly release video evidence from a police shooting until after deciding whether to file criminal charges. Doing so earlier, Lacey wrote, could bias potential jurors.

“The Police Commission policy jeopardizes the justice process by exposing witnesses to video evidence before they are interviewed by our independent investigators,” she said last month. “It will make seeking justice in these politically charged cases more difficult.”

The police officers’ union aligned with Lacey, saying it would have preferred that LAPD video not be released until after investigations were complete. But, the union’s directors said, they were glad that some of their input was included in the policy and believed that input helped strengthen the final product.

“We may not always agree on everything,” Jerretta Sandoz, the union’s vice president, told the commission. “But we do respect the relationship that we formed and the dialogue we had related to this policy."

The new rules go into effect in 30 days and will apply to shootings or other critical incidents that occur after that.

When video does come out, Beck cautioned, it won’t always provide the clear-cut answers new viewers might expect. Officers’ hands might block the camera’s view. So could a steering wheel. There might be a struggle between an officer and a civilian that makes it hard to see what exactly happens.

“Sometimes these things, even when they are completely justified, completely appropriate, are still hard to watch,” he said. “There is no acceptable way for a viewer to watch somebody get shot.”

Cynthia McClain-Hill, another commissioner, agreed. She and other police commissioners have watched dozens of videos from police shootings as they determine whether officers violated LAPD rules for using deadly force.

“I still flinch every time I hear a gunshot. Every time,” she said. “Whether an officer is defending their life or whether a shooting is out of policy, it doesn’t matter. What’s occurring is tragic and beyond difficult to see.”

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