Body cameras have now become a part of LAPD crime enforcement despite outcry by the ACLU.

Recent Use of Body Cameras

Just yesterday two LAPD officers responded to a call reporting a woman armed with some sort of knife. The woman, Norma Guzman, 37, died at a hospital following the officer involved shooting, said coroner’s Assistant Chief Ed Winter.

“An officer-involved shooting occurred and a knife was recovered at the scene,” said LAPD Officer Mike Lopez.

“Our understanding is that both officers discharged their weapons,” said police Sgt. Frank Preciado. According to him, the officers were wearing body cameras and the video taken on those cameras will be downloaded and examined as part of the investigation. Additional video footage taken from a security camera in the area that will be looked at, he said.

The shooting occurred in one of the first LAPD divisions where body cameras have been issued to officers. According to Lopez, both officers’ body cameras “have been collected by the Force Investigation Division investigators, and will be analyzed for evidence.”

Body Cameras are Hot Topic

Due to events that have taken place over the last couple of years, the use of body cameras by law enforcement has become a hot topic of discussion across the nation. Casual observation would lead to the conclusion that their use has widespread enthusiastic support, but a deeper look would reveal that adoption of “body cams” raises many relevant questions and concerns by not only law enforcement, but also civilians and civilian rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU Against Body Cameras

In early September, the ACLU sent an 11page letter to federal officials, criticizing the LAPD’s adoption of body cameras for the city’s officers and urging for defunding of the program. According to the letter, the ACLU feels that the LAPD’s body cameras, which make automatic recordings of the public not only violates people’s privacy, but that the practice also undermines “the goals of transparency, accountability and creation of public trust that body-worn cameras should serve.”

An Example from San Diego

Early users of body cams in Southern California include programs in San Diego and Rialto. Rialto police working with a Cambridge University researcher found two notable results: Complaints against officers declined by 88 percent and officer use of force declined by 60 percent.

The San Diego Police Department has had officers wearing the cameras during at least two shootings earlier this year. A heated controversy arose because the public was not been given access to the videos. The SDPD claims that once footage becomes part of an investigation, the department doesn’t have to release them to the public.

This incident directly raises the question of public availability of body cam video under freedom of information laws. It is possible that such a release would truly hamper the investigation. There are many other relevant and far reaching questions and concerns to be asked and addressed. Such questions include: Should police use video for investigating crimes as well as holding officers accountable? Should officers be allowed to turn cameras off and on? Should video be released for broadcast and use in social media? How long would video be stored? Who has access to it?

LA Responds to ACLU Letter

Since receiving the ACLU letter, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcettihas responded and defended the department’s stance.

The LAPD has previously said it would not publicly release body camera videos to the public unless required to do so because of a criminal or civil court proceeding. According to Garcetti, there will most likely be individual cases where the city and LAPD Chief Charlie Beck would allow videos to be released.

“Will there be extraordinary occasions where the chief will have to use his judgment? I expect him to,” the mayor said. “If the city is about to … erupt in violence or something where we might want to share to bring that down, absolutely.”

Garcetti went on to say that since the cameras have been put to use by the LAPD, they have been successful in capturing video evidence of sensitive situations. The mayor cited one example of an officer responding to a domestic violence incident. Because he was wearing a body cam he was able to capture an altercation between a suspect and a victim.

“That is not something that should be shared publicly,” the mayor said.

“I won’t do that when there are rape victims, I won’t do that when there are domestic violence victims,” he went on to say. “I won’t do that when we have trials that will result [from the videos] where we need to have the evidence be untainted,” he said.

Beck, directly responding to the ACLU’s call for release of the videos to the public or media, maintained that automatically releasing videos could make some people fearful of reporting crimes.

“I don’t want one victim to not call the Los Angeles Police Department because she is afraid that what she reports to us will wind up on YouTube or in the public domain,” he said. “That is not fair.”

During the same press conference, Beck said body camera recordings will be shared with the city’s Police Commission and its inspector general and, if needed for either criminal or civil cases, will also be shared with the district attorney and Los Angeles city attorney.

“These are not secret, these are not something that are cloistered by the police,” he said. “These are something that are used as evidence in a well-proven system that deals with evidence every day.”

Misrepresentation of ACLU?

According to Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Southern California chapter, the mayor and the police chief are misrepresenting the ACLU’s position on the wearing of body cameras.

Bribing says the group is not advocating for public disclosure of all video captured by body cameras. Rather, he maintains the ACLU is calling on the LAPD to release any video that demonstrates and captures alleged police misconduct or video that has been requested by private individuals of their interactions with the police.

“Those are situations where the video should be released,” he said. “We have never asked for all video to be released.”

National Movement for Body Camera Use

In 2014, President Obama designated $75 million in federal funds to help local police agencies in purchasing body cameras as part of his efforts to help strengthen the ever-deteriorating relationship between police and the public in the wake of incidents like the Michael Brown shooting.

In early September, the LAPD’s chief information officer told the Police Commission that the department had applied for some of the funds made available by President Obama, and hoped to use federal money to purchase 700 cameras. The LAPD has plans to buy 7,000 cameras for its officers. While some money for the purchase of the cameras has been allocated in the city’s budget, officials also are looking for outside grants to help fund the program.

Downside of Body Cameras

There are potential down sides to body cam use. One very possible side effect could be a negative impact on police effectiveness. Though citizen complaints decline with the body camera use, it may be due to officers being not as willing to engage with the public, knowing everything will be recorded. Citizens may be unwilling to report accounts of crimes they have witnessed when they are aware of being recorded.

Benefits of body cameras may just revolutionize law enforcement and not only how officers behave, but also how civilians behave when they know they are being recorded. Still, many unforeseen circumstances and questionable results may also come to the surface when and if the use of body cameras becomes the norm. We already know that eyewitness accounts are not always reliable and we may soon realize that body cam video can be just as unreliable as eyewitness accounts have often been. What happens when the camera is not reliant, or when the action or event takes place off camera, or with only partial video evidence? Whatever they may bring, body cams will probably soon be an integral part of modern law enforcement. Only time will tell if the use of body cameras is actually effective or harmful.

Daniel R. Perlman, Esq.
Law Offices of Daniel R. Perlman