National and local police watchdog groups are calling the past two weeks here a case of déjà vu – but with a new technological twist.
Fifteen years after the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney King made the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) the international poster child for police abuse, three videos of alleged police misconduct here have popped up on the Internet.
Within days, the videos – posted on the do-it-yourself website YouTube – received well over 100,000 hits, sparking demonstrations, heated calls for investigations, and reviews of use-of-force policies. The immediacy of the postings, with no prior screening by media or neutral third party, have injected a note of optimism as well as caution from all sides in the debate.
More eyes and ears on police can eliminate the problems of contrary testimony in court, a development both police and watchdog groups say they welcome. But hastily posted videos can also more quickly ignite reaction that can escalate out of control, say critics. Such reaction could be based on edited or only partial clippings of videos that don't show what happened before the alleged abuse.
Many of the details in the YouTube videos seem to be a direct repeat of the episode involving Mr. King: Graphic videos of police have been played over and over on the local news. One involves repeated striking of a downed suspect by an LAPD officer. A second involves pepper spray used on a homeless man, again by an LAPD officer. A third involves the use of a Taser stun gun on a student by University of California police in Los Angeles.
"New tools like YouTube now provide police and civilians alike with important opportunities to learn the truth and to learn it faster," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago, a national police watchdog organization.
One of the videos was shot with a hand-held videophone – an increasingly popular device that could multiply the number of police watchdogs, she adds. "New technology now gives police departments and civilian review boards – and courts – more options for indisputable eyewitness access to the controversial encounters between police and civilians."
The LAPD says it has already seen the results. "This city has become filled with advocates looking to film police doing wrong," says Lt. Paul Vernon, a department spokesman. He says growing numbers of homeless advocates are filming encounters in skid row. A new grass-roots group, CopwatchLA, is also systematically shadowing cops by listening to police scanners and then showing up to video arrests and other police citizen contacts.
Police ask whether such tapes are fair.
LAPD officials reviewed a tape, for instance, of the Aug. 11 arrest of alleged gang member William Cardenas, in which he was punched several times in the face by a police officer. LAPD Chief William Bratton called the video "disturbing" but said that the 20-second clip did not show the suspect's repeated resistance to arrest which, police say, sparked the response.
"The average person watching one of these videos may not have considered the situation that led to the arrest – how uncooperative, combative, aggressive, or threatening the suspect might have been," says Mr. Vernon. "If a crime has been committed, a police officer cannot get up and walk away like a normal person can, he has to make an arrest and sometimes that takes force."
He says the LAPD has calculated that it averages 1.2 uses of force per 100 arrests, one of the lowest ratios in the US. He says the department calculates an average 1 million contacts between police and citizens per year. Of that, they make about 150,000 arrests, only about 1,800 of which involve use of force. Of those, says Vernon, "an average of about three" are found to violate LAPD guidelines.
Activists dispute that assessment.
"Due to the advance of technology, there are more cases of police abuse that are being captured by civilians, giving us documented evidence of what we have said for years ... which is that there is a systematic pattern of police brutality in the LAPD, regardless of who the chief is," says Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic H.O.P.E.
On Tuesday, Chief Bratton said no violation of pepper spray procedures occurred in the episode when suspect Benjamin Barker was arrested after a scuffle with a merchant in Venice Beach. In the UCLA Taser case, an independent investigation has yet to reach a conclusion. Mr. Cardenas struck a plea bargain Nov. 15 and was released.
The Los Angeles City Council on Monday approved $5 million for the installation of new cameras in 300 patrol cars by the end of the year.