LAPD Body Cam Footage Can't Be FOIA'ed; Used In Court Cases Only

from the and-this-fixes-what? dept

The Los Angeles Police Department is getting ready to deploy 7,000 body cameras. That’s (mostly) good news. Body cams have the potential to deter bad behavior both by cops and by those they interact with. It’s not a complete fix for police misconduct but it’s far better than allowing things to continue to run as they have for so many years.

The first 800 cameras have been financed by private donors, including director Steven Spielberg and the Dodgers organization. While traditional public funding would likely have been available, this one-time fundraiser has allowed the process to move much faster than running it through the usual city channels.

This is also good news as 22 donors fronted $1.5 million, showing there’s significant public interest in seeing police officers outfitted with body cameras. Now, here comes the bad news.

Privacy-minded groups like the ACLU — while applauding the move towards greater accountability — have expressed valid concerns about citizens being caught on camera. It’s looking for the crafting of policies that will prevent the distribution of footage to “YouTube and TMZ,” as well as safeguards against collected video being passed around departments for the amusement of police officers.

There are also unanswered questions concerning access within police departments. For instance: should officers have access to footage they’ve captured? — Being allowed to do so may result in cops aligning their reports with their recordings. While that is a concern, there’s no reason to believe officers shouldn’t have access to applicable footage when writing reports — but that does leave the door open for post-incident narrative-massaging. It will be up to those policing the police to determine whether the footage matches the story. That’s part of the internal structure, unfortunately, and it’s part of what keeps these cameras from being a better solution to the police misconduct problem. Independent reviews will be necessary, but there’s been no indication yet that the LAPD is leaning that way.

The really bad news is the fact that the LAPD has opted to almost completely remove the public from the equation.

[LAPD Police Chief Charlie] Beck also said Tuesday that the footage would not be released to the public and would be available only through criminal and civil court proceedings.

And there goes the accountability. It’s likely this move was prompted by certain activists in other cities who have placed FOIA requests for all body cam footage in perpetuity. This is an understandable reaction, but there is a middle ground that doesn’t seem to have been contemplated. Limitations could be amended into local Freedom of Information statutes that would prevent overly-broad requests such as these. (And, of course, this too has the potential for abuse…)

As it stands now, body cam footage will only be viewed in a courtroom. This provides for almost zero accountability. The deployment of 7,000 body cams loses its deterrent effect if officers know that footage won’t be seen unless it’s showing their side of the story (criminal cases) or working against them in civil suits. Civil suits obviously aren’t a deterrent, considering how many have been filed, how often settlements have been paid and how often officers are granted at minimum partial immunity in civil cases.

The LAPD may be ahead of the curve when it comes to full-blown body cam programs but if this doesn’t change, the impact will be negligible.

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Comments on “LAPD Body Cam Footage Can't Be FOIA'ed; Used In Court Cases Only”

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23 Comments
Avatar says:

Why would you assume that camera footage in criminal cases would only show the police’s side of the story? If it’s preventing prosecutors from charging cases which aren’t supported in the video, then that’s good in and of itself.

Or are you assuming that video evidence not backing the State’s position will disappear? THAT is the real issue – the cops are only accountable if the people maintaining the archive aren’t willing to disappear the evidence if it looks bad for the police (and, as a secondary issue, if judges are inclined to start throwing out cases where there ought to be video evidence but “oh my camera wasn’t on” or “oh, we lost that video” or “oh, we overwrote that backup tape by accident”.)

But the FOIA won’t help that at all, it’ll just change the point at which the inconvenient video gets ditched, no?

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Not 'if', but 'when' and 'how often'

As long as the cops are the ones put in charge of the footage, or even if they have access, then footage will ‘disappear’ or ‘suffer an unfortunate corruption of data’ if it happens to contradict the ‘official’ version according to the officers on the scene.

Cops are already willing to take the phones and cameras of those filming them to delete damning footage, if they own the computers the videos are stored on that will just make it all the easier for them to do a little ‘creative editing’.

Ned Ludd says:

We need to go past simple rules (or even laws) which can be changed at whim. We need to mandate encryption of all video and the decryption keys must be stored with a 3rd party who will only release an individual key in response to a court-issued warrant. Not just a court order that any court clerk can sign, but a full-blown judge-signed warrant. We also need official data-expiration policies such than anything older than a year is deleted unless there has been a petition to preserve it – and that’s a mere petition to preserve, you’ll still need a warrant to decrypt but preservation pending a warrant needs to be easy enough.

If we don’t make access physically difficult (versus administratively difficult) it is inevitable that these videos will end up in databases the way license plate scans have. And ten years down the road when Moore’s law has kicked up our computational power up by another 100x they’ll be running facial recognition, voice recognition, engine-sound recognition, gait-recognition, etc on the videos and data-mining the F out of it so that it becomes a tool for oppression worse than no video at all.

There are a lot of valid reasons to make the video available to the police – better supervision, training (replay their own mistakes as well as study the mistakes of others), etc. But, everything in life is a trade-off and the price of those minor beneficial uses will be state abuse of the camera footage.

Dan J. (profile) says:

Re: Victims

The only thing I’d add to this is that a civilian who’s involved in an incident with the police should be able to obtain a copy of the video without having to hire an attorney and seek a court order. There will be little or no deterent to police violence if they know I have to jump through all sorts of legal hoops to get the video if they boot me in the head. Many of the victims of police violence can’t afford to pursue the issue if it takes even a minimal outlay of money.

beltorak (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’ve pointed this out before; we can do better with the encryption. We can use Shamir’s Secret Sharing Scheme to split the encryption key into 3 parts and require any 2 to decrypt. Distribute them to a judge, the police department head, and a third party (ALCU or something similar), encrypt it with the recipient’s public key (so the recipient has to use a personally assigned private key to decrypt it), and require any 2 to obtain the video encryption key. Now illegal or unethical review of the video requires the collusion of two people, not just one loose cannon.

The only technological weak spot now is preventing the video encryption service from leaking the key before it is wiped (unique key per video). One solution to that is to use public key cryptography so the video encryption service only ever has half the key – the other half is distributed beforehand. The only problem with that is you cannot use a separate key for each video, so one order to unlock one video exposes the key and can be used on any other video.

But either solution is better than nothing, and definitely much better than entrusting the key(s) to any one entity.

You do raise a good point about giving the police a tool to review and correct mistakes, but they already have other ways to do this, and I’m not sure how serious they are about using videos to train.

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

Doesn't matter anyway

It really doesn’t matter anyway. You know that if the video shows anything the cops really don’t want seen, the “camera will be off” or, oops, “the recording got lost” or “accidentally deleted”.

It’s my estimate that the number one cause of evidence loss or destruction today is government officials covering up their wrongdoing.

G Thompson (profile) says:

This is a dual edged sword for the LAPD since if they have police body cam of an event from their viewpoint (and this is all about CYA) they are not allowed to release it whatsoever even if there is other video evidence shot by a third party that states another viewpoint (or part of one) that the body cam video might be able to disprove or at least show FULL context.

In any event the ubiquity of citizen video devices is at the point now that body cams are not going to be the only video evidence that will be available and the LEO’s cannot control the one they never took.

Votre (profile) says:

Says who?

The chief of police has announced a policy that I doubt he has the legal authority to make or enforce. Perhaps the ACLU could ask him to present the statute that gives him the authority to do so?

Any time a government employee (no matter how lofty their title) unilaterally makes up a “rule”, our very first question should be: “Says who?”

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Gewaltmonopol des Staates

I’ve said it before. It’s the monopoly of force that the department of justice holds here in the US, and as has been discovered so often on articles here on techdirt, institutions who hold power will want to retain that power, not share that power and exploit that power all to the point of dispensing with the original purpose to the people for which the institution served.

So to take back the power of force from the DoJ, you only need muster up a greater force. Or, as most oppressed-and-overpowered revolutionary groups do, trick the state forces into destroying themselves, or into situations in which your force is multiplied.

The DoJ doesn’t function based on what is right. The DoJ functions on what serves the DoJ the best. And when that conflicts with what serves the state or the people, it’s gone rogue.

Feel free to deride them or their behavior. Feel free to intervene. The problem is that the DoJ is the biggest tiger in the jungle.

Michael Kohlhaas (user link) says:

Re: Says who?

I will hazard a guess that Beck plans to cite section 6254(f) of the CA public records act, which exempts local police agencies from disclosure of records pertaining to

investigations conducted by, or records of intelligence information or security procedures

On the other hand, the California Court of Appeals has found that

Unless there is a concrete and definite prospect of … criminal law enforcement, the subdivision does not apply.

So the scope of the exemption is limited. And then the California constitution provides the right to open access to records which requires that exemptions be narrowly construed while regulations allowing access be broadly construed. In short, Beck is speaking hopefully, but I believe this will have to be decided in court if he tries to stick to his fiat.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

We've seen this before...

Regarding dashcams, pole cams and other security cameras: typically footage is only available to that institution which controls the camera, often the precinct.

So it’s no surprise that the deployment of bodycams goes the same route.

I think cameras should be made public access. Streamed / recorded / hosted to the public by a neutral third party.

And that’s why the mere installment of the cams is only an eensy-weensy-teensy step towards law enforcement accountability.

DigDug says:

Time for Citizen Cams - direct record to internet

Then all a citizen has to do is to setup rules that either automatically post a recording, or prevent posting.
Say they press a button that says, something’s happening, if I don’t stop the push, then automatically post, with GPS coordinates.

See how long it takes for the criminal cops, or petty government officials get nailed.

Anonymous Coward says:

“I think cameras should be made public access. Streamed / recorded / hosted to the public by a neutral third party.”

So we can all get to watch when a policeman knocks on a family’s door and tells them that their 17 year old daughter just threw herself in front of a high-speed train. And we can drool over the DV call or the kid mauled by a pack of pitbulls? Or we can watch as the body parts are extracted from a car wreck and then we can be thrilled as we recognize the license plate as our son’s or even better go tell the neighbor that they need to come quick and look because that looks just like their teenage son’s left leg?

Really? On the internet for perpetuity?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: The price of freedom is something something...

A buck-o-five, or not free, or eternal vigilance. I can’t remember.

And yes, public access to police videos may allow for a bit of drooling by people who fetishize dog-mauled kids, or mothers in shock. As if they didn’t already have enough to drool over.

Public access bodycams might also get police officers to brush up on their confrontational manners. I bet a buck-o-five that places like Ferguson that have high racial tensions, teen suicides and dog maulings are managed by officers with the same aplomb they handle jaywalkers, crazies and cigarette-mongers. Only now, their professionalism can be critiqued by the general public, for good or ill.

I stand by my original position, that bodycam footage should be streamed, collected and archived on the internet for perpetuity. Agreed, that may mean the world gets exposed to a tiny bit more gore that will be shared on /b/ than they already do. I think the accountability of our state-sanctioned enforcers might be worth it by magnitudes.

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