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L.A. Police Commission president calls for revisiting LAPD policy on body-camera videos

The Los Angeles Police Department is rolling out 7,000 body cameras to officers, making it the largest policy agency in the U.S. to use the technology on a widespread scale.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The president of the civilian body that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department said Thursday that he wants to reconsider the department’s policy against publicly releasing police videos, such as those created by body cameras worn by LAPD officers.

Matt Johnson said that the city’s Police Commission plans to review how other departments around the country are handling the thorny issue of what footage to release and when. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has previously said that in general he didn’t plan to release the recordings unless required in court.

“Our video release policy was never written in stone and I believe now is a good time to revisit it,” Johnson said in a statement to The Times.

He said any change in policy needed to avoid interfering with reviews by the district attorney’s office of police shootings and other controversial incidents and to comply with state laws.

“Video, while an important piece of evidence, does not tell the entire story,” Johnson said. “I want to make sure that when video is released it is done within a framework of releasing other evidence that helps complete the picture.”

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At least one other member of the five-person commission supported revisiting the rules, and a third said he wanted to hear whether Beck has reconsidered his views.

Beck said that he’s spoken with police commissioners, the mayor and district attorney about how to handle body-camera footage from shootings involving officers or other high-profile incidents. They’re keeping an eye on San Diego, where officials are considering a plan to publicly release recordings.

“We’re having that discussion,” Beck said.

Beck said he would be open to releasing certain footage “at the proper time in the proper framework.” There are still privacy concerns, he said. And he doesn’t want the public release of video to interfere with criminal or administrative investigations.

“I don’t want to ever impair that because of a rush to release,” he said. “But I’m not opposed to coming up with a way where we can satisfy more concerns here.”

Carl Marziali, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said the LAPD’s policy for video footage “has been evolving” as the department rolls out new technology, including the body cameras.

“Mayor Garcetti has always been open to changes in the policy, with the understanding that we must preserve the integrity of the disciplinary and criminal justice processes, and the fundamental rights to privacy and due process that everyone deserves, in or out of uniform,” Marziali said.

The LAPD is rolling out thousands of body cameras across the department, setting it up to be the largest police agency in the country to use the devices on a widespread scale. The department is also wrapping up its installation of cameras in patrol cars.

The divisive issue over how to handle such recordings surfaced again this week when Fresno police released body-camera footage after officers fatally shot an unarmed 19-year-old man last month — a killing that generated fierce protests amid a roiling national debate over policing.

Chief Jerry Dyer said at a news conference Wednesday that he decided to release the graphic videos of officers firing four gunshots into Dylan Noble, who was white, because of the intense public interest in the shooting.

In Los Angeles, protesters this week have demonstrated over the killing of a black woman in South L.A. last year, who police say was shot by police when she approached officers armed with a knife. The Police Commission ruled Tuesday that the officer who shot Redel Jones, 30, did not violate the LAPD’s rules on using deadly force.

Officers at the scene were not wearing body cameras, as the devices had not yet been distributed to their division.

Last year, the L.A. Police Commission approved a department policy that warns LAPD officers that the recordings are confidential but does not prohibit the LAPD from officially releasing them.

In an interview last year, Beck said the cameras still would bring transparency, even if the public lacked access to all footage. He noted the LAPD’s civilian overseers — the Police Commission and inspector general, along with the district and city attorneys’ offices — would have the authority to review the recordings.

“I think people misunderstand transparency as having everybody and all the public have access to everything. And it isn’t so much that as having the ability for oversight by multiple entities outside of the Police Department,” Beck said at the time. “I think that’s the meaning of transparency. I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube.”

The chief said he felt there was a “moral prohibition” as well.

“People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don’t think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public,” he said. “Families call us when they’re in crisis. Victims call us when they’ve had horrific things done to them by evil people. And to make those things public re-victimizes them, doesn’t serve justice. And I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has sharply criticized Beck’s position and the policy the commission adopted, which allows officers, but not the public, to view recordings. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice last year, the civil liberties group said the rules undermine “the goals of transparency, accountability and creation of public trust that body-worn cameras should serve.”

Robert Saltzman, a longtime L.A. police commissioner who expressed concerns about the LAPD policy when it was crafted, said Thursday that he agreed it was time to revisit the issue. A “blanket refusal” to release video undermines the attempts to build public trust in policing by having the body cameras, he said.

“I continue to think that it’s very important that we have a much more liberal policy regarding releasing the video,” he said. “Not releasing the video should be the exception, not the rule.”

Having the footage from body cameras has been helpful during the Police Commission’s closed-door reviews of police shootings and other serious uses of force, Saltzman said. Watching video is different than reading an interview or reports from an incident, he said. The recordings often confirm the accuracy of department reports – but sometimes raise questions, he said. The footage also shows how quickly something can unfold when police respond to a call.

“It’s in the officer’s interest and the department’s interest – as well as the public’s interest – to have this video made more available,” he said.

Releasing more video could also signal to the public that the Police Commission and department are “responding to all of the public attention that’s being focused on the interactions between the police and the public,” Saltzman said.

“There are some things we can do and some things we cannot do,” he said. “This is something we can do and that can make a difference in how the department is perceived by the public. I think that’s important.”

Steve Soboroff, another police commissioner and longtime advocate for body cameras, noted that when the LAPD’s policy was crafted last year, the chief said there may be circumstances in which he would consider releasing camera footage. Now that the LAPD – along with other agencies – have more experience with the cameras, Soboroff said he was interested in hearing the chief’s definition of what those circumstances may be.

“We set that policy in pencil, not in marble,” he said. “I think that is something that can be discussed. What are the circumstances under which release is appropriate, and is it broader now that we’ve had a year to see how it’s working? Or is it the same?”

Soboroff stressed the need to protect the constitutional, legal and civil rights of both officers and the people being recorded by the cameras, as well as evidence that may be used in criminal cases. If video is released more broadly, he said, it should be done using consistent guidelines.

“The video should not be used to make a point,” he said. “That doesn’t buy any credibility.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

For more LAPD news, follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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