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LA Sheriff wants forensic specialists to analyze body cam video

L.A. Sheriff Jim McDonnell has said he supports placing body cameras on his deputies. Now he has sent a formal proposal to the Board of Supervisors that includes hiring 239 new staff to run the program, including 32 forensic video specialists. Erika Aguilar/ KPCC

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has proposed hiring 32 forensic video specialists to analyze deputy-involved shooting and other critical incidents. The request is part of a $55 million body cam proposal Sheriff Jim McDonnell sent to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors Friday. 

The analysts would look for any glitches caused by such things as video compression, which could fail to capture or misrepresent critical fractions of a second, according to Sheriff's Captain Chris Marks.

"A quarter of a second is a big deal in an officer-involved shooting because a person can completely turn around and away from you in a quarter of a second," he said. 

The LAPD goes without such experts – hiring outside consultants on an as-needed basis.

One of those outside consultants is Parris Ward. He’s also been an expert witness for the sheriff’s department in court cases involving dash cam or security video. He said it’s rare for compressed video to make or break a case.

"I haven’t seen it be a critical factor very often," Ward said. He offered no opinion on the sheriff’s proposal.

Ward said more common problems are low resolution and wide angles, which can make someone look like he’s moving towards an officer more quickly than he actually is. Supervisors would receive special training to take such factors into account.

McDonnell's body cam proposal, first reported on by KPCC last month, calls for a four year phase-in of body cams, with the first going to the six highest-risk stations in terms of high-profile incidents. No vendor has been selected.

Supervisors need to approve the plan, which, when fully implemented, would cost $55 million dollars a year to equip 5,895 patrol and special operations deputies, including gang and narcotics cops, and to manage the video they collect.

The proposal calls for hiring 239 people in all, including 44 more detectives who would be faced with more evidence to review, more IT staff and personnel for a new sheriff’s bureau that would oversee the program. The bureau would have a 24 hour, seven-day-a-week help desk.

The proposal also includes separate, additional budgets for the District Attorney and Public Defender offices, both of which would have to deal with more video evidence.

The plan calls for the DA to hire 33 new people at an annual cost of $3.4 million dollars a year, and for the public defender to hire 23 additional staff at a yearly cost of $2.4 million. The proposal also foresees all 150 DA investigators wearing cameras.

Cost likely will be a key factor in the board's decision.

"This is what we think we need to do this program right," Marks said.

The forensic video specialists would seek to identify such things as preliminary frame problems, where one frame is taken by the camera and remains unchanged until the camera perceives a significant difference in the picture. The process saves space but can fail to record important frames, Marks said.

Unlike the LAPD, Sheriff Jim McDonnel has said he intends to release some video to the public – including images of high-profile shootings. The sheriff has yet to decide how long he would wait after an incident before releasing video, according to Marks.

McDonnell's proposal would put the nation's largest sheriff's department at odds with the LAPD, the third-largest police department in the U.S.

The LAPD doesn’t release any body cam video, although it is reviewing that policy. Chief Charlie Beck did release video once – of a man running with a gun – to calm public anger over reports that the man was unarmed.

Policies vary widely at police departments across California, but many comply with current state law that allows them to classify all video as possible evidence in an investigation and therefore exempt from the 1968 Public Records Act.

The proposal leaves open whether McDonnell would change his policy on when deputies can see video.

Currently, deputies must write their report before viewing any video. The LAPD allows officers to see the video first.

"It’s important to first understand a deputy's state of mind at the time of his actions and not add his recollections based on the video," Marks said. 

Under a 1989 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a reasonable objectiveness standard must apply – meaning what would a reasonable officer who is similarly trained have done in similar circumstances. The key question often is what triggered the officer to fear for his life or the life of another.