Few issues have generated more controversy in California law enforcement circles than how police determine whether someone is a gang member.
Such a designation can carry harsh repercussions. Critics have long argued that police unfairly target African Americans and Latinos as gang members with the use of field interviews in which officers ask those they pull over whether they have a gang affiliation.
Proving those allegations of police bias has sometimes been difficult.
But police leaders now have millions of recordings to review from more than 7,000 body cameras as a scandal widens over allegations that officers with the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Metro unit falsely portrayed people as gang members.
The technology has become pivotal in helping the LAPD’s internal investigators determine whether at least 20 officers committed crimes by falsifying department reports.
The officers are suspected of falsifying field interview cards during stops and entering incorrect information about those questioned in an effort to boost stop statistics. The LAPD received a letter from a Van Nuys mother saying she believed her son was misidentified as a gang member during an interview with officers. Officials reviewed body-worn camera footage and other information, and they found inaccuracies by the officer.
Since then, the LAPD has reviewed much more video footage to see whether the gang affiliations marked on the cards matched what those interviewed said. As a result, officials said, the investigation has grown to include at least 20 officers.
Law enforcement experts said the scandal underscores how body cameras are revolutionizing police oversight. In the same way cameras can help resolve disputes over police use of force, they can also be used to fact-check paperwork such as the cards.
“Cameras certainly allow much more evidence of what happened. It may not be the be-all and end-all, but it is certainly an improvement over what we had before,” said Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center. “It gives you far more information than words from an officer on a piece of paper.”
LAPD, the nation’s third-largest police department, began field testing body-worn cameras in 2014 and collects about 14,000 recordings a day. It has accumulated recordings totaling 2.1 million hours.
Though the cameras cost millions of dollars to purchase and maintain, citizens and many police leaders across the country say they provide transparency after high-profile incidents. In October, L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore praised the department’s use of its more than 7,000 cameras. He and the police union reached an accord late last year for supervisors to review footage to look for training lapses.
“It helps both sides of the camera,” Moore told The Times. “The existence of that camera helps answer: Did the alleged act occur or did it not?”
Moore said Wednesday that he expects to make initial discipline determinations this week on the first wave of cases under review in the gang-reports investigation.
“I will make a finding on the basis of the completed investigation as to appropriate disposition,” Moore said. “I don’t mean this to go on for months or years.”
Mayor Eric Garcetti said the LAPD took immediate action to look into the allegations and pledged a thorough investigation.
“We have a department that didn’t shove that under the rug,” Garcetti said. “I think the chief took the right action. Secondly, we have to make sure due process is afforded.”
So far, 10 officers have had their police powers suspended and been assigned to home. Another 10 have been removed from the street and are not allowed to have contact with the public.
The vast majority of names on the state’s CalGang database of gang members and associates come from the field interview cards. Police departments around the state enter information into the database.
Every field card generated by the LAPD officers under investigation has been removed from the system as a cautionary step to avoid any potential harm to prosecutions and future investigations, regardless of whether in-car or body-worn camera footage has been reviewed, according to multiple law enforcement sources.
So far, the LAPD and prosecutors aren’t aware of any false information from the field cards being used in a criminal case, and none of the officers under investigation have testified in a matter related to the cards, the sources said.
Still, Jamie Garcia of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said the cameras are not a solution, regardless of whether the footage showed officers falsely labeling gang members.
“This is the continued pattern of the LAPD,” she said. “They lie. This is the same stuff.”
The LAPD requires officers to document how they establish that a person is a gang member. To enter someone into the gang database after an encounter on the street, officers are required to document “at least two required gang membership criteria” out of 10, according to a detective manual.
Some criteria include a person admitting to gang membership, an informant identifying the person as a member or the person having a known gang tattoo. Officers are also required to state how the gang membership was established. Supervisors must then review and approve the cards, according to the manual.
The cards in every officer’s pocket are primarily an intelligence tool, used to identify possible suspects in gang-related crimes. Officers use a range of signs to identify someone as a suspected gang member or associate, including clothing, tattoos, and where and with whom the person is hanging out. Sometimes, people self-identify as gang members.
The cards themselves are small, 3 inches by 2 inches. On the front are the person’s name and physical description and the location of the stop. On the back are the names of whomever he or she was associating with at the time of the interview.
Officers do not take fingerprints for the cards. A law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity compared the field cards to a library’s card catalog: “You can pick out a card and get a synopsis, but in order to understand the substance of it you need to pull it off the shelf and open it up. You can’t use the [field interview] card to automatically say, ‘So and so is a gang member.’”
The field interview cards are sometimes referred to as "shake cards” by civil rights and defense attorneys who say the cards are nothing more than a tool for officers to stop and shake down minorities without probable cause. They have long been a means to gather details on people the LAPD comes into contact with on a daily basis.
Before the computer era, the cards were designed to gather details from the area where crimes occurred and to document encounters that stopped short of an arrest or citation. But civil rights lawyers have long questioned the validity of the information on the cards because there was no vetting of the information until an officer was called to court to testify in a criminal prosecution.
“These cards can cast a person as a gang member without any officer having to testify or be subject to cross-examination,” said Peter Bibring, a veteran civil rights attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
The cards have a dark history within the LAPD. At the height of the Rampart scandal, in which officers in the late 1990s were accused of a widespread pattern of civil rights violations in neighborhoods west of downtown, the cards were among the evidence that victims said officers falsified to set them up.
Times staff writer Leila Miller contributed to this report.