Crime & Justice

City Council considers $31M for LAPD body cameras

LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza pushes a button to turn his lapel camera on and off. The cameras don't roll for the entire shift, only when an officer presses record.
LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza pushes a button to turn his lapel camera on and off. The cameras don't roll for the entire shift, only when an officer presses record.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Under a plan endorsed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, the Los Angeles Police Department would spend $31 million over five years to equip 7,000 officers with body-worn cameras. The L.A. City Council is scheduled to consider the plan Wednesday.

If approved as expected, the LAPD would become the biggest city in the nation to outfit its street cops with body cameras.

Amid a national debate over police conduct, watchdogs hope the cameras will bring more accountability and transparency to policing.

In some ways, the council vote is a formality. For over a year, members of the council, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, and the Los Angeles Police Protective League have expressed strong support for body cameras. The union has said video will help exonerate officers wrongfully accused of excessive use of force.

"I am in strong support of expanding the use of body worn video cameras in the LAPD," said City Councilman Joe Buscaino, an LAPD reserve officer. "I'm pleased the department continues to lead the nation in utilizing new technology to increase accountability and ensure public trust."

The LAPD estimates the total five-year cost of the body camera program to be $57.6 million. It includes $22.85 million for new cell phones for all officers and data plans that would allow them to review and categorize video in the field and upload non-video evidence, including audio and photos. In addition, the LAPD estimates it will cost more than three million dollars for networking equipment and installation. The initial first year cost of the entire program is $8 million.

The LAPD also anticipates asking the City Council next year to provide funding for an additional 122 positions to handle all of the video and administration of the program, according to a report from the City Administrative Officer. The positions are not included in the current request.

Under the proposed contract with Taser International, the LAPD would purchase 6,140 cameras. The department already has bought 840 with private money.

Officers in the San Fernando Valley's Mission division, South L.A.'s Newton division and downtown L.A.'s Skid Row are already using body cameras. At the end of each shift, they upload videos from cameras. Under LAPD policy, they must activate the camera during almost every encounter with a person (exceptions include domestic violence victims who prefer not to be videotaped).

An audit of the body camera program released Monday found problems in the first weeks of deployment. Inspector General Alex Bustamante found one officer who shot a suspect did not activate the camera until after he fired his weapon, in violation of LAPD policy. The September 15 incident in the San Fernando Valley remains under investigation.

Bustamante said he considered it an unintentional policy violation.

Auditors also found cameras mounted on an officer’s belt did not capture incidents as well as cameras mounted on an officer’s chest. Currently, the LAPD allows officers to choose where to place their cameras.

The proposed contract includes unlimited cloud storage of video and a secure retrieval, viewing and management system, according to the LAPD. 

Enormous amounts of footage already exist. As of November, after just two months of deployment, 64, 108 videos had been recorded, totaling 11,954 hours of captured video, according to the department. That's an average of 903 videos per day.

Command staff, detectives and undercover officers will not wear body cameras under the LAPD’s deployment plan.

As part of the contract with Taser, the LAPD will also receive 4,400 new electronic stun guns. The plan is to equip every beat cop with a Taser, too – in hopes of reducing the use of deadly force.

Under the first year funding plan, $4.5 million will come from the city's general fund and $480,000 from the Forfeited Assets Trust Fund. Those are assets seized during drugs busts and other prosecutions.

In addition, the federal government awarded the city $1 million for the program.

While many watchdogs support placing body cameras on cops, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California urged the federal government to deny the city’s request for grant money.  The group argued the LAPD’s policy of not showing video to the public undermines the goal of transparency.

Chief Beck has said the video is evidence and should only be presented as part of a court case or to adjudicate complaints against officers. He has said there may be exceptions for particularly controversial incidents.

This story has been updated.