With smartphones everywhere, police on notice they may be caught on camera

In the city where a deputy marshal was recorded smashing a woman's phone, police are taught to expect video

In South Gate, police had already been warned: Just expect that you might be filmed with cellphones and other cameras as you do your job.

After high-profile uses of force caught on video in places like South Carolina, New York and L.A.’s skid row, officers in the Southeast L.A. suburb had been told to take filming in stride. If you're not doing anything wrong, police brass reasoned, what do you have to worry about?

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So on Sunday, when a lawman was caught on video snatching a woman’s cellphone in South Gate as she recorded and smashing it on the floor, it was with relief that South Gate police said the officer wasn’t one of their own but a deputy U.S. marshal.

“We’ve had incidents where people have videotaped us and it requires unbelievable restraint. Typically during times where things can be a little chaotic,” said South Gate police Capt. Darren Arakawa. “We really have to convey we’re living in a different environment now where police action is scrutinized and a lot of video is surfacing. We simply tell our officers to assume they’re being recorded out in public at all times.”

The idea of an unseen camera capturing an officer’s conduct first became prominent after the Rodney King video in 1991, Arakawa said. But video’s starring role in controversial police actions, including beatings and shootings, has increased in the more than two decades since. And more and more police departments, including the LAPD, are planning to equip their officers with body cameras.

“It’s a double-edged sword. Law enforcement is adopting some of the practices of technology as well with body cameras, digital records, dash-cams,” Arakawa said. “It’s just indicative of the times.”

On Sunday Beatriz Paez, 34, recorded video of deputy marshals as they detained a group of people in her neighborhood. Someone else in turn was recording her, on the video that ended up on YouTube and sparked the U.S. Marshals Service investigation.

“The U.S. Marshals Service is aware of video footage of an incident that took place Sunday in Los Angeles County involving a Deputy U.S. Marshal. The agency is currently reviewing the incident,” officials said in a statement.

“There is no situation in which an officer can intentionally grab and destroy a camera being used to lawfully record law enforcement,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The officer’s conduct is a blatant and deliberate violation of the Constitution and his duties as an officer to abide by the law.”

In the video, Paez is shown standing on the sidewalk aiming a cellphone toward two men standing a short distance away, wearing black shirts with tactical vests reading “Police” across the back. As the men stand with their backs to the woman, she can be heard saying “You are making me feel unsafe, and I have a right to be here” and “You need to stay away from me, I don’t feel safe with you closer to me,” among other statements.

Paez said Tuesday that the men had noticed her recording moments earlier and began to back up toward her to block her view. About 27 seconds into the video, a third man, a deputy U.S. marshal wearing a tactical vest and carrying a rifle, walks across a front lawn toward the sidewalk where Paez is standing.

Paez appears to aim her phone toward the deputy as one of the other men motions toward her with his arm. The words spoken at this point in the recording are unintelligible.

At 32 seconds, Paez takes a couple of steps away from the men. The deputy marshal crossing the lawn then rushes toward her and grabs the device from her hand.

“Oh! No! Don’t do that!” Paez is heard yelling as the man wrestles the device out of her hand and smashes it on the ground.

The phone’s screen was shattered and the device stopped working, said Paez’s attorney, Colleen Flynn. They plan to try to recover the video Paez was recording from the phone’s chip, Flynn said.

Paez said she began recording when she saw the law enforcement presence, their military-style weapons and a line of people being detained. She said the officers started letting the people they detained go soon after she pulled out her phone and started recording.

“It’s our responsibility to take care of each other,” Paez said. “It’s our constitutional right to film.”

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

For breaking California news, follow @JosephSerna.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

5:30 p.m.: This story was updated throughout with new reporting.

1:26 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from Beatriz Paez, the woman whose cellphone was grabbed, and her lawyer, Colleen Flynn.  

This story was first published at 8:58 a.m.

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