Los Angeles police officers will begin strapping on body cameras in just a few short months, fundamentally changing the way they interact with citizens. For the better, most people agree.
But if the proper rules aren't in place — if questions about transparency and privacy and how the videos will be used are not thought through at the outset — the change could be for the worse. That's why the proposed body camera policy put forth by Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck on Friday and set to be voted on by the Police Commission on Tuesday should be considered slowly and carefully.
Though the proposed rules include admirable detail about how and when officers must use the cameras, including outlining the few instances in which the devices can justifiably be switched off, and although it sets out certain privacy protections for victims, the document fails to explain the department's provisions for public access. That's probably not an accident, given Beck's earlier assertion that he doesn't plan on releasing any video unless required to do so by a judge.
That's unacceptable. One of the central purposes of the body camera program is to assure a worried public that interactions between officers and citizens are appropriate and by the book. The LAPD needn't go as far as the Seattle Police Department, which dumps blurred-out versions of all its videos on a YouTube channel. But at the very least, the LAPD ought to release videos of police shootings, unless release would compromise a case or intrude on a citizen's privacy. And there should be a mechanism for allowing release as well in other disputed, high-profile situations.
Also, the policy ought to make it clear that officers may not see the videos of their encounters before being questioned by investigators. Allowing them to see the videos first, as the American Civil Liberties Union noted, would certainly taint their recollections of the incident but, worse yet, might allow "officers who are willing to lie to cover up misconduct an opportunity to provide an account that's consistent with video evidence."
In addition, commissioners ought to vigorously question whether the document's broad descriptions of the circumstances under which officers may turn off their cameras — such as when it might "interfere with" an investigation — are clear enough to prevent abuse.
About 800 officers will be wearing body cameras as soon as this summer, starting a two-year rollout to reach Mayor Eric Garcetti's goal of 7,000 officers. So there is need for a policy soon. That said, urgency must not compromise the integrity of the body camera program. The public deserves more than three days — two of which were weekend days — to digest the proposed rules for such an important change in the way L.A. police conduct their business (especially since the online link to the report wasn't working as recently as Monday afternoon). After months of hearings and review, what's one or two more weeks to get it right?