Officers With Personal Body Cams Taking The 'Public' Out Of 'Public Accountability'

from the purchase-the-new-Axon-CYA! dept

America's largest sheriff's department is rolling towards an accountability train wreck. Despite years of discussing the issue, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department still has no cohesive policy on body cameras, nor has it taken steps to outfit its officers with the devices.

This less-than-ideal situation is being made worse by deputies purchasing their own body cameras with personal funds.

An estimated 20 percent of Los Angeles County's 10,000 deputies have bought cameras for themselves, according to the county's inspector general. Sheriff Jim McDonnell concedes some deputies have their own cameras but disputes that as many as 2,000 wear them on duty.

Whatever the number, not a single frame of any video from these cameras has ever made it into the public domain.

And therein lies the problem. Body cameras owned by law enforcement officers serve zero public purpose. Any recordings remain the personal property of the officers, who can delete and edit footage as they see fit. The only footage likely to make its way into the hands of the sheriff's department are recordings clearing officers of wrongdoing.

While it may be possible to subpoena this footage for civil suits and criminal prosecutions, there's no guarantee the footage will arrive unaltered, or even arrive at all. Personal body cams are unlikely to be bundled with unlimited storage. Footage will be overwritten often (depending on how heavily the camera is used while on duty) and remains in the control of officers, rather than the department and its oversight.

As is pointed out in the AP article, the use of privately-owned body cameras contradicts DOJ guidance on the matter. A 2014 DOJ report noted private cameras on public employees is an all-around bad idea.

"Because the agency would not own the recorded data, there would be little or no protection against the officer tampering with the videos or releasing them to the public or online," the report said. "Agencies should not permit personnel to use privately owned body-worn cameras while on duty."

The LA sheriff's department makes this worse by allowing the practice to continue without official policies on body camera use. Even the barest minimum of discipline for deleting footage is impossible, as the department is powerless to take action against deputies who vanish away footage containing alleged misconduct.

The head of the local law enforcement union pretty much says the only people benefiting from personal body cameras are the officers that own them.

"It's really a personal preference," [union president Ron] Hernandez said. "The guys we have spoken to have said they thought it would be beneficial for them. They see the value in covering themselves."

Sorry, but that's not what body cameras are for. They may provide evidence clearing officers of misconduct, but body cameras aren't there to create law enforcement highlight reels. While it's great some officers may find the cameras useful for clearing themselves of charges, they are public employees, not private entities engaging in personal enforcement of laws. The footage should be as public as their positions. But this will never happen if their employer is unwilling to craft a solid body cam policy that addresses private ownership of cameras.

As it stands now, the department is allowing its existing policies on evidence handling to act as a stand-in for its non-existent body camera policy. According to these rules, all evidence must be held for two years and turned over on request to the sheriff's department. Supposedly, this will encompass privately-held body camera footage. But it would be much better for body cam evidence to be stored on site where it's immediately accessible and less prone to tampering.

Body cameras are already problematic. They have the potential to be great tools of accountability, but this has been continually stunted by legislators and law enforcement agencies, many of which have done all they can to keep this footage out of the public's hands. In this case, the LASD's lack of forward momentum on the camera front has turned a portion of its workforce into sole proprietors with badges, guns, and a collection of home movies starring residents of L.A. County.


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  1. identicon
    Manok, 2 Sep 2017 @ 2:27pm

    Just as more and more cars get dash cams, why aren't there more and more bodycams for EVERYBODY, not just cops? If cops with personal bodycams are a problem, this could fairly easily be negated by far more private citizens having these.

    Biggest problem are prices... dash cams can be as low as $10, whereas bodycams are crazy expensive.

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