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Put cops on camera

VIDEO CAMERAS IN POLICE CARS are such a terrific idea that just about everybody involved with the Los Angeles Police Department agrees they should be installed, including Chief William J. Bratton, the police union, community watchdog groups and the federal monitors overseeing police reform. The consensus is so broad that there’s only one major player left to convince, but unfortunately it’s the most important one: the Los Angeles City Council.

The LAPD presented a report to the Police Commission last week suggesting that the cameras, which would cost about $25 million to install, would eventually pay for themselves. The report estimates the city would save more than $3 million a year by eliminating costs involved in investigating complaints against officers. The analysis is a little suspect -- there’s no guarantee that the time saved would be spent on more productive tasks -- but the report really only scratches the surface of potential savings. And even if there weren’t any, the cameras would be a worthwhile investment toward improving police conduct, community relations and transparency.

The biggest opportunity to save money is in avoiding costly litigation. The city paid out about $7.5 million a year in police-related settlements between 1990 and 2003, and the report estimates that cameras could reduce that figure by 20%. That’s partly because complaints against officers often have no merit and could be quickly dismissed if there were video evidence to prove it. A 2004 analysis of 21 camera-using state police departments by the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police showed that more than half of citizen complaints were withdrawn after the complainant was told the incident was on tape. In cases of genuine abuse of authority, video evidence leads to quick settlements, greatly cutting trial costs.

There’s also evidence that the simple existence of cameras tends to defuse volatile situations; when both officer and suspect know they’re being filmed, they act more rationally. The public gets hard proof about police conduct, and officers are protected from unjustified accusations. Everybody wins.

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For all that, City Hall has been debating cameras off and on for 15 years with little action. They were first recommended by the Christopher Commission in 1991, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, but a pilot program foundered in the mid-'90s because it was too hard to store all the videotapes. Today’s digital cameras make that point moot.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s staff is looking for ways to pay for police cameras in the 2006-07 budget. After that, it will be up to the City Council to give the go-ahead. Whatever it takes, in-car cameras should be a part of next year’s budget.


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