Body cameras worn by Los Angeles police officers are virtual eyewitnesses, recording and presenting incidents as the tiny lenses see them. Like any witness testimony, the captured images are useful, although incomplete, depictions of what happened. In high-profile cases a large or at least vocal swath of the public generally wants to see such images immediately while the LAPD typically keeps them under wraps pending a full investigation — exacerbating suspicions that the department has something to hide.
This week marks an important step in revisiting that policy. In cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Commission, the nonprofit Policing Project based at New York University School of Law will begin a process of public outreach, through community meetings, questionnaires and interviews, to help shape recommendations on the release of video and related issues.
Police policy can't be shaped by public vote, but neither can the department properly do its work in the absence of meaningful policy input from the public it serves. That input is provided in part by the commission itself, and in part by members of the public who attend commission meetings — but those sessions too often degenerate into shouted accusations followed by room-clearing and angry recriminations. The additional and more systematic process of opinion-gathering could be helpful.
A similar process in Camden, N.J., was generally well-received. A report from the Policing Project effort in New York is due any day now. The L.A. commission, under the leadership of President Matt Johnson, deserves praise for getting the process underway here.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the new Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission should take note. The county has yet to purchase body cams for its deputies, and the sheriff, county budget officials and the Board of Supervisors have been in sometimes tense talks over the cost of doing so. Meanwhile, many deputies are buying, wearing and using their own body cameras for their own protection — but there has been no public discussion of what they can do with the video, when they should turn the cameras on and off, or other questions that loom large as video becomes ubiquitous in law enforcement.
Convening such a discussion is well within the job description of the sheriff's oversight commission. The composition of that panel itself was determined after a series of community meetings in various parts of the county, but limits of that process soon became clear. Outreach and public notice were inadequate. The multifaceted Policing Project format to get public input on body cameras for the Police Commission may lead to a more inclusive process, and a similar effort could be similarly useful to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission if it decides, as it should, to take up body camera policy.