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LAPD and Dallas police get body cameras: New era of transparency? (+video)

Los Angeles and Dallas police this week began using body cameras. Other cities are debating whether the cost is worth the benefits. 

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    this Jan. 15, 2014 file photo, a Los Angeles Police officer wears an on-body camera during a demonstration for media in Los Angeles. Some Los Angeles police officers are now equipped with the body cameras while on patrol. Police Commission President Steve Soboroff says Monday, Aug. 31, 2015 that the first wave of 860 cameras has been rolled out to more than 100 Mission Division officers who patrol the San Fernando Valley.
    (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
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In two major US cities, Los Angeles and Dallas, some police officers are now equipped with body cameras while on patrol. Elsewhere around the country, more municipalities are adopting body cameras – or actively debating whether the benefits of more transparency are worth the cost.

LA Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said Monday the first wave of 860 cameras has been rolled out to more than 100 Mission Division officers who patrol the San Fernando Valley.

These initial cameras were paid for by $1.5 million in private donations. Los Angeles plans to equip 7,000 officers with body cameras in the next couple years.

The LAPD is the nation's largest law enforcement agency to move forward with such an ambitious plan.

The department's civilian oversight commission approved a camera policy in April despite opposition from its most veteran commissioner and civil liberties groups. The policy allows officers to review their video before speaking to investigators and says nothing about releasing video to the public.

In Dallas, body cameras will make their official debut Tuesday. 

According to Deputy Chief Andrew Acord, body cameras will be given to about 55 officers in the central patrol division, 11 officers in the northeast patrol division, as well as 8 officers with multiple types of complaints against them regardless of their division, reports The Dallas Morning News.

Acord said officials hope to get 1,000 body cameras over the next five years and all patrol divisions will get some body cameras as the rollout continues. He said the decision to issue the cameras in increments is meant to make sure the city's technology can handle the cameras.

In Milwaukee, police officers would be wearing body cameras by the end of 2016 under a proposal announced Sunday by Mayor Tom Barrett.

The proposal, first reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel , comes after tense episodes between police and Milwaukee's African-American community and fatal shootings by police in Ferguson, Missouri; Cleveland; and North Charleston, South Carolina, that sparked discussion nationwide about race and policing. Last year, 31-year-old Dontre Hamilton was fatally shot by a Milwaukee police officer in a downtown park.

According to Barrett's preliminary budget, body cameras for 1,200 Milwaukee street officers — including storage of video information — would cost $880,000 in 2016 and about $1 million a year beginning in 2017.

The estimated cost is about what it would cost to add 12 officers to the department's ranks of 1,880 sworn officers, Barrett told the newspaper.

"The question is: Is it worth 12 officers?" the mayor asked. "That's a legitimate public policy debate."

He added: "I embrace it wholeheartedly, both from a fiscal standpoint and from a policy standpoint."

Both Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn and the president of the Milwaukee Police Association, Mike Crivello, support the initiative.

In Iowa City, every police officer is now equipped with a body camera, and police have a new policy governing their use.

The ICPD issued cameras to its entire force on July 27, joining the Coralville, North Liberty and University of Iowa Police departments that have equipped all on-duty officers with cameras in recent years, the Iowa City Press-Citizen reported.

Body-worn cameras for police officers have become a topic of national conversation in the last year after widely publicized deaths of black men and women at the hands of police, like 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014. But ICPD Chief Sam Hargadine said his department was interested in using body cameras before the Ferguson incident, and has been studying the costs and advantages of different kinds of cameras.

"It's probably been close to a two-year process and the technology has evolved dramatically over those two years," Hargadine said. The department purchased 11 body cameras in 2013, which have mainly been used by officers on foot patrol in the pedestrian mall area.

ICPD ultimately settled on the BodyVision camera from L3 Mobile Vision, at a cost of $60,000 for 84cameras and associated equipment, excluding the cost of labor for the department's systems analyst to prepare the cameras and storage system for use by officers.

Ease of use was important, Hargadine said, because officers already carry significant amounts of equipment.

"When we went to body cameras, we wanted to make it as simple and as seamless as we could for the officer," he said.

New ICPD policy mandates that all footage be downloaded no later than the end of each officer's shift — something the BodyVision cameras automatically do when docked in their charging stations, saving officers that step.

The ICPD also uses the L3 brand for its in-car cameras, which it has used since the 1990s, so the storage system is the same. That saves the department from having to learn a new system and the cost of buying it, which Hargadine called "a huge savings to the taxpayer."

One of the biggest concerns for Iowa City police was privacy, according to Hargadine. When drafting General Order 99-08 — the policy that governs ICPD body cam use — the department consulted with staff from the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, which often offers advice to departments crafting similar policies.

Just like other local police departments, the ICPD has had to balance the need to keep a record of officers' activities and maintain the constitutional privacy rights of citizens, especially those who are not involved in any crime, but who might be seen on camera.

North Liberty Police Chief Diane Venenga said videos that include children are especially troubling given the camera's lack of discretion.

"We don't have the capability to redact so that is also a concern when you're talking about privacy," she said.

Hargadine said routine house calls also are an area of concern.

"We are in people's homes a lot, but that doesn't mean we're there to arrest people," he said.

Police in general will not release recordings if they are related to an ongoing investigation, but other videos are typically classified as open records under Iowa law, with few exceptions, according to an Aug. 6 memo from Assistant Iowa City Attorney Eric Goers.

The department's policy requires officers to turn their cameras on when responding to calls and carrying out enforcement action, as well as for most interactions with community members, such as traffic stops, frisks, searches, arrests, interviews and situations that could become hostile. The policy does give citizens protection in some situations, such as when their interaction with an officer is not related to a crime.

"In locations where individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a residence, they may decline to be recorded unless the recording is being made pursuant to an arrest or search of the residence or the individuals or other enforcement action is occurring," the policy states.

However, that does place the burden on the resident to ask the officer not to record them.

In other casual encounters, such as simple conversations with citizens around the city, the policy gives officers the option of leaving the camera off, for fear of seeming too official or unapproachable.

Currently, Iowa City plans to save all recordings for three years by storing them on servers and burning older files onto DVDs and Blu-Ray discs. In part, the policy is based on the statute of limitations for filing a civil suit against the department, Hargadine said.

"Any time we are defending ourselves in something, we want to be able to go back and say we've got the video of it," he said.

Other departments approach storage differently. North Liberty uses a multi-tier system where interactions not involving law enforcement are kept for 30 days; interactions including law enforcement, such as a traffic stop, are kept for 90 days; encounters leading to arrest are kept for 720 days; and other files are saved for a year. UIPD also keeps all noncontroversial footage for about a year and keeps any video relating to a case with that case's file, said David Visin, UI's interim director of public safety.

However, both the ACLU and officers have suggested that the most relevant privacy concern might not be the recording itself, but the potential that members of the public would be free to view that video. Jeremy Rosen, the ACLU of Iowa's executive director, called body cameras "an extremely important tool for police accountability," but acknowledged there are privacy concerns in terms of what should be considered an open record.

"For example, we've heard in the past that organizations like TMZ are making open records requests for body camera footage in certain places because they're just looking for embarrassing footage of drunk people or traffic stops that they can just put on the Internet," Rosen said, advocating for some restrictions on the release of records not tied to any sort of investigation.

Coralville Police Chief Barry Bedford agreed that many privacy questions have not been resolved, in part because body cameras have rapidly grown in popularity. His tendency is to err on the side of caution, meaning he will be less inclined to release videos to the public.

"We're probably going to be conservative in releasing things," Bedford said, adding that each request would be handled individually in consultation with the city attorney.

Some of those concerns could be resolved in lawsuits, or in state legislation that would set standards for all Iowa police departments, which the ACLU is advocating for. As it stands, the ACLU works with individual departments that seek input about their policies.

"At this point, each department has the discretion to establish whatever policy they want, so we do have to work with them one-on-one," Rosen said. "It would be much easier for us, and more importantly, uniform for all departments around the state if we have strong standards at the state level everybody has to follow."

Police in Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty and UI said they found body cameras helpful in a variety of ways. Having video of an encounter can help an officer be more accurate when writing an incident report, and can save time in resolving a dispute.

Hargadine said that before the department used any sort of cameras, it took an average of 40 hours to investigate an incident. With dash cameras and body cameras, that time has been cut to minutes, he said.

ICPD Sgt. Scott Gaarde said body cameras have the advantage of audio, and unlike dash cameras are not restricted to one viewpoint, which makes it easier to resolve citizen complaints.

"I think it will be able to show a different perspective as opposed to like a 'he said she said' type of disagreement," Gaarde said.

Bedford said it is easy to show the video to the person making the complaint, rather than arguing with them when they might be emotional or may have forgotten parts of what happened.

"We found out fairly quickly that in more times than not when officers were accused . it actually exonerated the officer," Bedford said.

In those cases, video could even benefit police interactions with the community more broadly. "When there's a video that backs up what they say, I think that's an enhancement of the public trust," Hargadine said.

And videos can be used to train officers in best practices and even de-escalation techniques, diffusing situations that otherwise could have gotten out of hand, according to Visin.

Still, recording officer misconduct, should it occur, is a significant function of the cameras. Iowa City's policy states that supervisors randomly review each officer's video footage to make sure they are acting appropriately. The policy requires supervisors to do this for at least two videos per officer every six months, and other local departments have similar policies, including the automatic review of incidents where force is involved.

"Every use of force . our supervisors are required to review it," Visin said of UI's policy.

Iowa City also has a Community Police Review Board, which meets monthly and examines complaints related to the police department. Board chair Melissa Jensen said they have not yet discussedbody cameras, but city clerk Marian Karr said they are on the board's September agenda.

Hargadine said ICPD officers already are used to being filmed on the job, either by their dashcameras, surveillance footage or witnesses with cellphone cameras, so the implementation ofbody cameras is unlikely to change the way they approach their job.

"You should always assume you're being recorded and act accordingly," he said.

The difference, police said, is that the addition of body cameras will allow citizens to see police encounters in their full context.

"As opposed to a 30-second clip on YouTube, they'll have the opportunity to see the whole story from beginning to end," Gaarde said.

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