LAPD's plan for 7,000 body cameras comes with challenges

Exactly who has access to videos taken from the camera is shaping up to be a highly sensitive issue

Los Angeles will purchase 7,000 cameras for police officers to wear while on patrol, making the city a laboratory in the use of devices that bring the promise of more transparent policing but also concerns about civilian privacy.

Los Angeles would be the first major U.S. city to use the cameras on a wide scale. Police departments across the country have been increasingly studying the cameras after the fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., and the contradictory accounts of what happened.

“The trust between a community and its police department can be eroded in a single moment,” said Mayor Eric Garcetti, who added that all the LAPD cameras should be in place by July 2016. “Cameras are not a panacea, but they are a critical part of the formula.”

The department has been testing various video systems to better monitor officer behavior for several years — with decidedly mixed results.

A high-profile effort to place cameras in patrol cars has been marred amid years of delays and revelations that officers tampered with the equipment to avoid being recorded. Some officers went as far as to remove antennas from patrol cars that captured audio of their encounters.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday that any officer caught tampering with the new body cameras would face serious punishment.

Exactly who has access to videos taken from the cameras is shaping up as a highly sensitive issue.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it generally supports the new effort as long as strict rules are enacted to protect the privacy of those recorded.

“When people interact with the police, they are not at their best,” said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU's Southern California chapter. “They don't want it out on YouTube, given to TMZ or distributed around the station for a laugh. People don't want that and policy should prevent that.”

Another battle is brewing over whether police officers should be able to review the recordings before writing police reports about incidents. Bibring and others said officers should not have access to the recordings because it could allow them to alter their statements or align them with what the footage showed.

The LAPD has yet to craft its policies about the use of the cameras and recordings, and officials are still discussing what access the officers will have. Beck stressed that the protocols would be finalized before the cameras hit the streets, and that they would be presented to the Police Commission for approval.

Beck also said Tuesday that the footage would not be released to the public and would be available only through criminal and civil court proceedings.

The LAPD has long grappled with controversial incidents that generated community anger.

Some, like the 1991 beating of motorist Rodney King, were caught on tape. But many, like the recent fatal shooting of Ezell Ford Jr., a mentally ill man in South L.A., were not.

Merrick Bobb, who for years was the civilian overseer of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said the body camera plan was ambitious but complicated.

In addition to actually acquiring all the cameras, he said, the department must negotiate rules with police union and city officials.

“The proof will be in the pudding. Can they deliver?” said Bobb. “The problem is establishing all your rules. That is where it gets tricky.”

Bobb noted that installing cameras in police cars was a major recommendation of the Christopher Commission that examined LAPD reforms more than two decades ago. Today, only a fraction of police cars have them, he said.

Garcetti and Beck said they would avoid similar delays with the latest camera project.

“I am certainly committed to making this a quick process,” Garcetti said.

The mayor said funding for the on-body cameras would be covered by the next fiscal year's budget.

He estimated that the total cost would reach the “high single-digit millions,” depending on contract negotiations and whether the city receives federal grants, including any funds available from the $75 million that President Obama recently earmarked for such cameras.

The LAPD's efforts to obtain body cameras began about a year ago, when Police Commission President Steve Soboroff raised private donations to avoid the budget problems that hampered the patrol car project. Officers tested various camera models, eventually settling on a Taser Axon device about as big as a police badge that can be worn in the middle of an officer's chest.

“It's really important for both sides of the camera,” Soboroff said.

Garcetti said the city's first 800 cameras would be purchased with more than $1.5 million from private donors.

Those cameras will roll out as early as January in three LAPD divisions with higher crime rates: Mission, Newton and Central.

Councilman Curren Price, whose district includes the South L.A. neighborhood where officers shot and killed Ford this summer, said he hoped that the cameras would help bring clarity to controversial events.

“Our country and our city are in a critical point of time when it comes to policing communities, especially communities of color,” Price said. “It's about increasing accountability and transparency so we can continue to build trust.”

Tyler Izen, the president of the union that represents the LAPD's rank-and-file, said he was hopeful that the cameras would help protect officers against false allegations of misconduct.

“We don't object to body cameras, and actually believe they will be useful in defending our officers,” Izen said. “We look forward to having a policy in place that protects everyone's rights and interests — the officers, the department, the city and the community.”

Beck said the city's embrace of the cameras makes a larger statement.

“To have the second-largest city in America say, ‘We'll do it, we'll spend the money' … speaks volumes about what this city is committed to,” he said.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

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8:05 P.M.: This article was updated with new details throughout.

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