Los Angeles police adopt body cameras: How big a deal?

Los Angeles became the biggest city in the US to mandate body cameras for all its patrol officers. But critics worry that police can still game the system.

Rick Wilking/Reuters
A Colorado Springs, Colo., police officer poses with a body camera. The Los Angeles Police Department adopted body cams for all its patrol officers Tuesday.

The decision by the Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday to equip all its patrol officers with body cameras has been met with both praise and concern. 

Los Angeles will now become the largest city in the United States to equip all its patrol officers with body cameras, and that is an important move toward addressing some of the issues raised by a recent string of high-profile police shootings from Missouri to South Carolina, some analysts say.

“This is a great step, especially when you have a major metropolitan police department trying to make a stand on transparency not only to help the police officers, but for the public,” says former policeman Tod Burke, now a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.

But there was division on the police commission itself over who should get to see the videos. The commission voted 3 to 1 to adopt the cameras despite criticism that there were no protections against police gaming the system by altering reports to fit footage or simply not releasing the video.

“When body cameras have the right policies behind them, they can be great tools, but when they have the wrong policies, as it appears may be the case in Los Angeles, they can be viewed as tools for propaganda – as what the police want people to know, creating more distrust,” says Chad Marlow, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In some instances, body cameras have been shown to have a positive effect both on police accountability and citizen behavior. In 2011, Rialto, Calif., had 24 complaints against officers. A year later, the first year of Rialto's body camera pilot program, that number dropped to three.

Since then, cities such as Ferguson, Mo., and North Charleston, S.C. – where officers fatally shot unarmed black men – have adopted body cameras for police. Last September, the New York Police Department also launched a 60-camera pilot program in one high-crime precinct.

A November 2014 report by the Police Executive Research Forum analyzed 254 police departments – of which 64 used the cameras – and concluded: “the perceived benefits that body-worn cameras offer … largely outweigh the potential drawbacks.”

The LAPD move is an important milestone, Professor Burke says. “It has been absolutely shown that it has impact on citizens' behavior. If they know they are being recorded, they are less likely to make a false claim, and their behavior changes, as does that of police officers.”

He compares it to instant replay in baseball: “What is important is the fact…. What does it matter if the video needs to be checked? That’s what baseball umpires do all the time.”

The problem, say detractors, is that allowing officers to see the videos before they write up their incident reports could allow them to shape their remarks based on what the video shows.

"One of the big, obvious problems with the way the LAPD are implementing body cams is that it does nothing to address the problems these cameras were supposed to solve: There is no public oversight, officers get to decide when to turn the cameras on and off," says Gordon Coonfield, a professor of communication at Villanova University in Philadelphia. "The guidelines governing that are very loose, and neither the public nor its representatives are permitted access to the footage."

"It is not the officers’ faith in the system that has been shaken – in the case of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and now Freddie Gray, no officer has been charged with a crime," he adds. "It is the public’s faith that needs restoring here."

Mr. Marlow of the ACLU has his own baseball metaphor: “This is like there is some baseball dispute between the Yankees and Dodgers, but only the Yankees get to see the video and make a decision. Clearly, they want the finding to be in their favor, and if no one else gets to see it, what good is it? Where is the trust?”

Burke thinks that police departments can start out with a policy like Los Angeles's – which allows officers to review the footage before their reports – but later examine the track record and tweak the policy if need be.

Mary Powers, founder of the National Coalition on Police Accountability, sees both sides: “I absolutely feel that police cameras should be standard equipment for all police from Day 1,” she says. “Even though that is expensive, we have to gauge what kind of savings would be made in civil settlements. You would have to say it is still a savings.”

But she adds: “Body cameras should be a condition of employment as part of required uniforms, not a prop to consult to help embellish or refresh their memories in composing exculpatory accounts of behavior. This would defeat the purpose of the entire program.”

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