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.