LAPD body cameras: 90-day test seeks to answer key questions to create new policy

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On Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles, a man walks into the middle of the road and waves down an LAPD patrol car. The officer shouts to the man to return to the sidewalk. He parks the cruiser and turns on the blue-and-red caution lights.

It’s a quarrel between two people over a haircut, with some name-calling involved. Eventually, a handshake resolves the dispute.

However trivial the problem, the officer’s small lapel camera should have caught the entire encounter on video. All interactions with pedestrians, plus vehicle stops and calls that officers are dispatched to are supposed to be recorded. But this encounter wasn’t.

“My concern was getting him out of the street so I can talk to him on the sidewalk,” said LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza. “And I totally forgot to turn it on.”

Currently, the officer controls when the device is recording.

“The only bad thing is that I have to manually do it,” Espinoza added. “So if I’m driving or engaging in something where both of my hands are tied up, I can’t activate it.”

It’s one of the issues that the LAPD expects to answer over the next six months. About 30 LAPD officers assigned to the Safer Cities program – which patrols downtown L.A. and Skid Row – will test the lapel or body-worn cameras, said Maggie Goodrich, the chief information officer for the LAPD.

The goal is to get some answers to some of these key issues.

“They’ll give us feed back on the practicality of pushing that button – to turn it on and turn it off,” Goodrich said. “And what that interaction is like during this field test.”

Body-worn police cameras have become a topic of great interest and debate at law enforcement conferences across the country. The tiny camera is being offered as an accountability tool for both police departments and the public. It has so far been well received by police, the public and civil rights attorneys.

But achieving a broad consensus on body-worn cameras gets complicated when it comes to how they should be used, especially when it comes to civil rights, like the right to privacy.

The LAPD is testing three kinds of devices. Two of them are made by Taser and will be tested for 90 days. Then a third type made by a different company will be field-tested for another 90 days.

The U.S. Department of Justice has asked the Police Executive Research Forum – a D.C-based think tank – to draw up best practices for law enforcement agencies on using body-worn cameras.

“I think the part of the conversation that’s more complicated is the right to know when recording is appropriate and when it is not appropriate,” said executive director Chuck Wexler.

For the test period, LAPD officers have been directed to turn on the cameras on all pedestrian and vehicle stops and any dispatch radio call they respond to.

Most other police agencies, such as the Oakland Police Department, have similar policies. OPD is using about 450 body-worn cameras, and technicians also wear body cameras when documenting evidence at a crime scene.

In Alameda County, footage filmed by police has been introduced in a murder trial. It may be the first instance where body-worn video is being used in court as evidence.

Garrick Byers is a public defender in the Bay Area. He is not involved in the murder trial. But believes body cameras can be useful, especially in DUI cases, where it can be an impartial witness.

“Without a video, we’re mostly stuck to the officer’s word or the defendant’s word to whether or not the defendant was stumbling around, spoke with slurred speech, failed field sobriety tests,” he said.

But prosecutors and defense attorneys have their concerns too: the practicality of obtaining the video in the correct format; whether the action being disputed was captured in the field of view or recorded at all; and the impact that viewing a body-worn video can have on a jury.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office said they’ve assembled a working-group to evaluate how body-worn camera footage could be used in court cases.

Sometime during LAPD’s test period, various stakeholders – such as the police union, the civil rights attorneys, the police commission and the public – will debate how to use the body cameras. The goal is to create policies on how the devices will be used.

“Nobody wants a police officer to have this on all the time,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck at a recent news conference. “You want them on at the right time.”

One key question is when exactly is that “right time” to be recording?

Peter Bibring is a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. The civil rights group supports body cameras for documenting police encounters with the public. But he cautions about using them in situations when the public has a reasonable expectation to privacy. 

“Does that need to be on when the officer is in the station house? When the officer is on a bathroom break? Of course not,” Bibring said.  “Does it need to be on when an officer is in his or her patrol car talking about an incident right before they’re about to get out…maybe.”

Another question is when to film on private property.

“They can also be taken inside somebody’s home for the execution of a search warrant,” Bibring said. He also warns against widespread surveillance of the public through body-cameras.

The ACLU and the rank-and-file police officer’s union find themselves on the same side of certain privacy issues. The Los Angeles Police Protective League has said it’s concerned about the videos being used for administrative purposes, like disciplining cops.

“We are addressing those issues as they arise, so as not to allow ‘gotcha’ mentality or misuse to derail the intended purpose,” according to an LAPPL blog post.

Then there’s the question of how long will the police department store the recordings?

Those answers vary among police departments. The LAPD says it will store the videos for a minimum of five years.

Other police departments, like Oakland, keep videos indefinitely. Richmond Police keeps it for one year, but can also store them indefinitely. It can also vary across the country because of different state laws.

There are also concerns about making sure video is uploaded to secure servers so footage doesn’t get leaked or wrongly deleted. Also, does the server have the ability to produce a type of audit report to track who accessed specific videos and when it occurred.

LAPD Chief Beck said that if he decides officers will be required to use body-worn cameras on patrol, he’d want each officer to have their own assigned equipment. 

“Then there’s much better control and there’s an ownership piece,” Beck said. “You’re not checking them in-and-out like a piece of luggage.”

The Los Angeles Police Department may be the first large metropolitan law enforcement agency in the country to test body-worn cameras, but it is not the first police department in L.A. County.

The Pasadena Police Department is testing body-worn cameras, but has expressed concerns about the cost of purchasing and maintaining the technology.

The Long Beach Police Department is researching it.

The Burbank Police Department tested body-worn cameras in late 2011 but decided against them for now because “the technology has room for improvement,” said Sgt. Darin Ryburn in an email. Current models have limitations, he said, such as battery life, limited field of view and the size of the device on the uniform.

The Santa Monica Police Department has looked at seven different body-worn camera systems. After evaluating them, it decided not to purchase them. Some reasons: the bulky size of the battery packs, the cost of a vast data storage system needed to store videos, and the less-than-user friendly software. 

“We are hoping that in the near future, manufacturers will develop camera systems that will be more compatible with our in-car camera systems to where they will sync and work together,” said Santa Monica police Sgt. Jay Moroso in an email.

Los Angeles police officers testing the body-worn cameras aren’t mandated to tell the public they are recording. It’s the same with Oakland PD. But many LAPD officers testing the gadgets say they do it anyway.

Observing several encounters on the street shows that the public’s opinion varies. Some smile, pose, and even give shout outs or address the chief of police directly when LAPD Officer Espinoza tells them the camera is rolling. It has a chilling effect on others who don’t want to be recorded.

“Some are like, ‘Oh,’ and they don’t want to tell you what’s the matter,” Espinoza said. “We don’t have to tell them but it’s a courtesy – and you know, just a heads up – especially if somebody wants to be a witness or wants to come forth.”

Some like J.T. Thomas and Victor Jefferson shrug their shoulders and give it thumbs up.

“It probably needs to be a little bit more concealed,” Thomas said.

His friend Jefferson disagreed.

“Nah, I think [people] need to know that they’re being watched,” he said. “It’ll keep both parties honest."

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