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Eyes on Evidence : LAPD Equips Patrol Cars With New Cameras to Document Domestic Abuse Victims’ Injuries and Win Cases in Court

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It is one of a cop’s most common laments: Despite bruised arms and blackened eyes, the victim refuses to press charges against her husband for fear of another beating at home. No eyewitness, no case.

On Wednesday, authorities from the Los Angeles Police Department and city attorney’s office unveiled a new tool they say will help break the cycle: Police will equip 400 patrol units citywide with top-of-the-line Polaroid cameras so that officers can document spousal attacks immediately.

Prosecutors will use the photos to pursue charges against abusive husbands and boyfriends even when victims refuse to testify in court.

Police and advocates for battered women expect the cameras to dramatically boost the battle against domestic violence in Los Angeles.

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“Pictures don’t lie,” said Sgt. Scott Currey, training coordinator in the LAPD’s Foothill Division and one of about 80 officers present for a training session Wednesday at the Police Academy. “There’s a thousand words in each picture.”

As many as eight of 10 battered women who contact police fail to pursue their cases by pressing charges or appearing in court, authorities say.

Many victims fear reprisals or losing their husband’s financial support. Some have recanted on the stand, protecting their abusers while claiming responsibility for their injuries in an ugly cycle of violence that can end in death.

“I lived in a lot of denial about what was going on,” said Judy Waters, a former abuse victim who was present for Wednesday’s police announcement. “I was in a frame of mind of wanting to protect my boyfriend.”

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Police arrested Waters’ ex-boyfriend 2 1/2 years ago after he slammed her against a wall, leaving a grapefruit-size bruise on her arm. But the case ended quickly after Waters wrote on the police report that she did not want to prosecute him. To make matters worse, she said, her boyfriend destroyed the only evidence by opening her camera and exposing film that contained photographs that she had taken of her injuries.

“I was scared that somebody I loved could do that to me,” said Waters, who is now a volunteer at Sojourn Services for Battered Women & Children in Santa Monica.

About one-fifth of the 20,000 domestic abuse cases filed by the city attorney’s office each year are dismissed partly because of uncooperative victims, City Atty. James Hahn said at the Police Academy gathering.

“It doesn’t do us any good if we try a case without the best evidence,” Hahn said. “Good photos of injuries are what we need to get convictions.”

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Hahn, LAPD Chief Willie L. Williams and Los Angeles City Councilwoman Laura Chick were among the officials who introduced the new cameras to police officers before the training session began.

During the training, police officers learned how to take high-quality pictures that will stand up in court. They took pictures of volunteer models, including ex-victim Waters, who posed with mock injuries that looked all too real.

One make-believe victim had baseball-size bruises painted on her forearms. Another had a deep cut across the bridge of her nose and fingernail marks on her neck. Waters had a bloodied knee and a nasty gash on her forehead, as if she had been thrown against a piece of furniture or a wall.

The officers learned how to take pictures not only of the victims but also of the crime scene, including such things as broken furniture and weapons.

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Officers said they welcomed the chance to sharpen their photography skills. Some said their fuzzy and out-of-focus pictures in previous cases made it difficult to get a judge or a jury to convict a batterer.

“If we don’t have good photos, it’s hard to file a case,” said Det. Terry Kibodeaux of the Devonshire Division’s major assault crimes unit. “The district attorney or city attorney says, ‘These photos don’t show the injury.’ ”

Kibodeaux and other officers said they looked forward to using their new skills on the streets and predicted that they would document additional domestic troubles such as mistreatment of children and animals.

“We’re going to help the victims break the cycle of abuse,” Det. Paul Bishop said as he aimed his camera at a model. “By using the photos to help in the prosecution, we’re relying on more than the victim’s testimony.”

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The new cameras, bought by the city attorney’s office, come equipped with special close-up lenses that allow officers to document injuries in fine detail. The equipment is a big change from the few aging--and in some cases, broken--cameras that most of the department’s divisions keep on hand.

The 400 cameras will be installed in what are known as “active” patrol units. Staff from Polaroid’s Law Enforcement School of Imaging will spend the next two weeks training officers at each of the LAPD’s 18 divisions.

“Domestic abuse is a high priority here in the LAPD,” Williams told the officers at the Police Academy. “We’ve made a commitment to serve the victims of this city in the best way we can.”


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