It’s noteworthy that the Los Angeles Police Department on Wednesday publicly released body camera video of an encounter on May 6 between officers and Jose Chavez, who died not long after being hit with beanbag rounds and being shocked with a Taser. It was the first such release under a transparency policy adopted earlier this year by the Police Commission. It’s an important step forward for the department.
The problem is that the department released an edited and partially narrated portion of the two-hour encounter. And that’s not enough.
The purpose of the video-release policy is not to allow the department to present its version of events. The purpose is to release the video — for the public to make of it what it will. L.A. residents should be able to view enough of their officers’ performance to have faith that the department is being open about its business.
Litigants in any case against the department would be able to view and present in court the video of the full-two hour incident, including the events leading up to the use of force. That’s what the public should be able to view.
Some editing may well be appropriate, to protect witnesses or innocent bystanders. And yes, the department should be able to tell its version of events, even with an edited and narrated video. But it should be accompanied by the raw footage, which should be treated as any other public record.
The department should not fear the results. It might well find that viewers, over time and after seeing many such videos, will gain a better understanding of the difficulties and dangers of police work.
The 17 minutes of the edited Chavez video, for example, depict the tension of the situation. The full two-hour version likely shows how draining such incidents can be for officers. It could give some indication of any action taken by Chavez that resulted in his death in the hospital later that day.
Or, it could show some kind of serious mistake. More than likely it does not, but who knows? The failure to release everything allows L.A. residents to wonder what the department might be hiding, even if it is hiding nothing.
Charlie Beck, now in his final days as chief, said that the LAPD may release more of the video at a future date. Later is better than not at all. But now is better still, when public confidence is at stake.