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Crime & Justice

LAPD Chief Beck: Body camera videos an 'investigative tool,' not for public consumption




 A West Valley City police officer shows off a newly-deployed body camera attached to his shirt collar on March 2, 2015 in West Valley City, Utah.
A West Valley City police officer shows off a newly-deployed body camera attached to his shirt collar on March 2, 2015 in West Valley City, Utah.
George Frey/Getty Images

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The LAPD is awaiting word on whether federal money will help fund body-worn cameras for officers, after the American Civil Liberties Union asked the Department of Justice to halt funding this month because videos will largely be kept from the public.

Current allocation plans seek federal funds for about 10 percent of the camera purchases. Has Chief Charlie Beck contacted the DOJ the challenge to ACLU's position?  

Plus, after a violent summer in South L.A., the homicide rate is up about seven percent in Los Angeles. How is the LAPD responding to residents' fears? And a scam alert from LAPD warns of phone calls claiming a family member is being held hostage for ransom. The calls are originating from Mexico.

We'll have more details on that and other crime and safety developments.

Interview Highlights

Let’s talk about body cameras because LAPD rolling them out, you got them in the Valley, with other areas to come. But the ACLU has asked the Feds not to give any more money toward the department’s body cameras because you’re not making the footage available immediately in officer-involved shootings. Your response to that?

Well, the ACLU is  welcome to offer whatever recommendations they want to whoever they want, but I don’t agree with them, I don’t think the federal government will agree with them either. Body cameras, and I’m wearing one right now as we talk and you can see it, are an evidence-collection tool, just like detectives are, just like the coroner’s investigation is, just like many many pieces of an investigation. We don’t release investigations piecemeal. Body camera footage is available for review by the district attorney, by the city attorney, by a civil court, by a criminal court, and in cases of uses of force that rise to the appropriate level, by the civilian police commission. So there are multiple levels of review, and to merely put video into the public without further investigatory information I think is inappropriate.

Of course, the concern is that the department is going to release the video when it suits its interests, not so quick to do so when it makes the department the gatekeeper. How do you respond to that concern?

I respond to it by looking at my track record. I’ve been Chief for five years now. We’ve had in-car video for that whole time, and I haven’t released that video when it supports my position or when it is detrimental to my position or to the department. I use it as part of the investigation; it is not something I use to form public opinion. It’s an investigative tool. That is not to say that I would never release video. If the state of the city depends on it, then that would weigh heavily on my decision. But in the day-to-day incidents of policing. One of the things I like to remind folks is that when you call the Los Angeles Police Department, it’s not on your best day. It never is. We go to your house. There may have been a domestic incident. You may have been the victim of a crime. It could be any number of circumstances. None of which you want put in the public domain. At least, all of the victims I’ve ever talked to. And so we want to be very circumspect, we want to be the guardians of the public trust. When people interact with the police, I think they have a right to some privacy in that condition.

I wanted to ask you about the rollout of the body cameras and whether you’ve had glitches with them so far. I know there was the pilot run of them, but now with more officers having them, how’s it going?

So far it’s gone very well. Obviously it’s a learned, physical skill. It’s just like taking your seatbelt off, or any other thing you learn by repetition. The activation of the body camera, the deactivation of the body camera. Learning the appropriate times. Remembering to do it under stressful circumstances. All of that has to become muscle memory to the officer. So they’re working on that, and we’re working on some certain other minor things. But nothing of any import.

I was talking with an officer who was engaged in a pursuit, caught a suspect, and he forgot to turn on his camera before he took off. So he got sent for retraining. Very frustrating for him, just saying, “It’s yet another thing we got to remember when we’re looking out for our safety, trying to catch someone, make sure the camera’s on.” Are you seeing as they’re getting used to doing this very many instances where they simply forget to turn on the camera?

Well it happens. We forget a number of things; sometimes people forget to put the car in park, under stressful circumstances. They try to get out without taking their seatbelt off. They leave some of their equipment in the car. Human beings, and you know, we’re all human beings, have a lot of emotion and a lot of adrenaline running through their systems in stressful circumstances. And sometimes it can be hard to cognitively remember to do things. That’s why it has to be muscle memory, that’s why it’s so important to do it daily, to remember it, to do it in a way that’s consistent so that it becomes part of your day-to-day actions. So as we see that happen, we will see it being less and less of an issue. But it’s always going to happen because in those circumstances in where we’re the most interested in what the body camera collects, those are the most stressful circumstances.

Well and you know there are going to be times, as we said before, it’s going to glitch because technology is not foolproof. There’s going to be times officers truly forget to turn it on, not just that they’re trying to  avoid being seen doing something. It’s always going to raise the suspicion that the officer or the department did something to keep it from being recorded.

Well I think that’s why it’s important to have the discussion we’re having now. To recognize that, 1) it is not the totality of the evidence. To be perfectly frank, the autopsy results, the ballistic results, the forensic results, the trace evidence results, often paint a much more concretely prosecutable or understandable picture than a body camera does because they are science where the body camera is going to capture what it captures. Like I say, it’s like the young kids watching a baseball game through a knothole; you only see what you see. And the body camera doesn’t collect everything. But it’s a great evidence collection tool, it will add to our ability to analyze incidents. I’m excited about it, I think it’s going to be something that is a game changer in policing. 

Guest:

Charlie Beck, Chief, Los Angeles Police Department