LA Panel Debates Access to Police Body-Camera Footage

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Journalists, judges and attorneys argued Monday the benefits and pitfalls of releasing footage from police body cameras and cellphones at a time when high-profile fatal shootings and excessive force incidents have roiled minority communities.

U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr., LAPD director of the Office of Constitutional Policing and Policy Arif Alikhan, and Los Angeles Times reporter Jim Newton were among the panelists at a media conference at the First Street courthouse to discuss when and how the public should see video of police shootings.

Alikhan said he was concerned that releasing footage too early could present a distorted picture to the public before investigators had put all the pieces together.

“We don’t always know what happened,” Alikhan said. “Within hours we may not know, in part because we can’t talk to the officers, usually, for six, seven, eight hours until afterward. We’re still assembling the records. We’re interviewing witnesses.”

He said that public trust in the LAPD has improved, but there is a danger if the public gets to see only snippets of video.

“Our credibility in putting out information is very important, which is why we’re hesitant to just put something out, even if it is video, because there could be other aspects that we wouldn’t even know at the time,” Alikhan said. “So being able to give a credible explanation of what occurred is very important. And time is normally not on our side when it comes to that.”

Newton said it’s the job of journalists to fill in the context before they post a video and provide details of what happened: before, during and after an incident.

“It seems to me the answer to that is not to wait until you have a complete investigation in order to get a context, but to caution the public that you don’t have the complete context yet,” Newton told Alikhan during the panel discussion.

There are more than 2,000 body cameras on L.A. patrol officers, and 7,000 will be in operation by the end of the year, Alikhan said.

Police Chief Charlie Beck has supported restrictions on public access to videos of officer-involved shootings. Last year, Beck released surveillance camera footage of Carnell Snell after reports that the 18-year-old was unarmed when police shot him dead in South Los Angeles. The video appeared to show that he was armed.

NBC4 reporter Beverly White told Alikhan that the LAPD should not limit release of videos to the times when “it serves your purpose.”

“You released it to further your case, not to serve the victims or the witnesses. So what we’re asking for is consistent release of video,” White said.

Chief Ninth Circuit Judge Sidney Thomas and Chief U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips delivered opening remarks before the panel discussion, which was moderated by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik, from the Western District of Washington.


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