Crime & Justice

LAPD body cameras: Tests show they fall off

LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza wears a video camera on his lapel. Espinoza is one of 30 officers in the downtown area that began testing body cameras this month.
LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza wears a video camera on his lapel. Espinoza is one of 30 officers in the downtown area that began testing body cameras this month.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Early tests of police body cameras — which the LAPD is considering to record officer interactions with the public — showed that they tend to fall off officers' shirt collars or sunglasses during movement.

That is the finding presented Tuesday to the L.A. Police Commission by L.A. police officials, who are about to start another round of testing this month.

The department is testing the cameras before rolling them out widely as part of an effort to cut down on public complaints about officer behavior. The LAPD believes officer-worn cameras could capture video of officer interactions with the public, while civil rights lawyers believe they could keep cops on their best behavior.

About 30 LAPD officers from Central Division in downtown Los Angeles have been testing body-worn cameras since January, with the goal of eventually having all patrol officers at the police department wearing them as part of their daily uniform.

The officers have so far wrapped up 90 days of testing the two types of Taser-brand body cameras. One type is attached to the center of an officer’s chest. The other can be attached to the officer’s shirt collar or sunglasses. 

The on-body cameras attached to an officer’s chest seem to be sturdier and are preferred by officers than the cameras attached to their shirt lapels or sunglasses, Sgt. Dan Gomez said Tuesday at the meeting.

“Mainly because as they start to … get in and out of the car, chase people, get involved in altercations, [a lapel camera] tends to fall off,” he said. 

The camera still records the audio if it falls off, but video of the action isn’t captured.

On the other hand, the body camera attached to the chest is sturdier, but it, too, can be limited as to the camera’s field of view, depending on an officer’s height.  

"Smaller is always better," Gomez added. "The officers always want the devices to be smaller."

Gomez added that battery power that lasts 12 to 14 hour per shift makes the devices bigger or clunkier.

"The general consensus is, 'Yes.' They do think the it's beneficial to them," Gomez said.

The quality of the video is standard definition, not high-definition. The video is not enhanced, either, which can make night-time video dark.

Officers testing the devices are surveyed every 30 days to get feedback on using the devices. Gomez said officers have continued concerns about manually activating the body cameras.

It’s up to an officer to manually push the camera button to record. Officers are told to record all pedestrian and traffic stops with the public.

“They are always concerned about timely activation of the system,” he said. “So clearly in situations where they just have to react, the camera becomes a ‘I turn it on when applicable, when practicable.’”

Next week, officers will begin training on a new brand of body-worn cameras, Coban. These are also mounted to an officer’s chest and will be tested for 90 days.

Afterward, Gomez will do a side-by-side technology comparison of the two brands of body cameras.

Meanwhile, LAPD officials in charge of the body-camera testing say they’ll be diving deep into the privacy issues and draft policy on the use of body cameras. Meetings on the issue will include representatives from the Los Angeles police union and civil rights lawyers from the ACLU.

A survey is also being drafted for the general public to give online feedback about the body cameras.

L.A. Police Commissioner president Steve Soboroff said over the weekend that he met with New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. The NYPD plans to test body cameras for about one year.  

“They are watching every moment of what you’re doing,” Soboroff said