LOS ANGELES (CN) – A new policy requiring that video from Los Angeles Police Department body cameras, drones and patrol cars be released to the public went into effect Thursday, officially reversing the department’s previous, longstanding position of withholding such material.
The Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously approved the policy, which calls for video and audio from “critical incidents” involving LAPD officers to automatically go public within 45 days of occurrence.
The Commission, a civilian panel with oversight powers that can determine LAPD policies, said “critical incidents” include deaths that occur while a suspect is in LAPD custody or other encounters in which officers use force that kills or seriously injures someone.
Video and other media from security cameras or bystanders’ cellphones would also be available to the public under the plan.
The LA City Council voted in June 2016 to allocate $59 million to fund body cameras for officers, and now every officer is equipped with one, according to the LAPD.
Calls for transparency and accountability in the wake of policy killings of unarmed individuals – such as in the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson Police Department officer – spurred the use of police body cameras nationwide.
In the wake of the March 18 fatal police shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, California, lawmakers proposed the Police Accountability and Community Protection Act, which would change the police standard for the use of deadly force.
Police shot and killed 162 people in California in 2017, lawmakers said at the April 3 event announcing the proposed bill.
Some activists remain concerned that public and police support for body cameras will detract from the need to retrain officers, establish civilian oversight of police, or address problems such as racial bias in departments.
Many police departments have embraced officer-worn body cameras to build trust with residents, although some law enforcement groups are concerned about the impact certain videos could have if released immediately to the public.
In a December 2017 statement on the release of police body camera video, the California Peace Officers Association said it supports the use of body cameras and acknowledged the public demand for accountability tools. Still, CPOA said it worried about “the viewers’ assumption that the video is all-inclusive” and “disregard of all the other evidence, including the officer’s testimony.”
CPOA also fears the release of body camera videos could negatively impact ongoing investigations into police incidents and create environments in which “public opinion is hastily formed prior” to an investigation commencing.
In a March 13 letter to the Commission, Melanie Ochoa, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said the updated policy was “a significant improvement” from an earlier proposal but could go further in addressing transparency, accountability and protections against police surveillance.
“Body cameras are meant to be tools for accountability, not for general surveillance,” Ochoa said.
The policy should be amended to keep videos from being shared with other law enforcement agencies or used to collect data of individuals’ encounters with the police, especially during non-criminal encounters, Ochoa said.
Ochoa is also concerned about the privacy of bystanders who may be caught on camera during police encounters.
She would like to see the policy updated to “expressly prohibit analyzing video using other surveillance tools such as facial recognition technology.”
The current policy allows officers to review video before submitting their statement after an incident such as a shooting, which Ochoa said undermines investigations and generates public distrust of the process.
“LAPD should preclude officers that are part of an investigation from reviewing relevant video evidence before they provide a statement,” Ochoa said.
The Commission said the policy is meant to balance the interests of police accountability and transparency and the privacy of individuals recorded in body camera video.
Court orders can also prohibit the sharing of video, and some videos will be edited, blurred or redacted to protect the privacy of juveniles and victims of certain crimes.
The Commission said “reasonable attempts” will be made to notify officers, members of the public and other subjects in body camera videos 48 hours prior to the video being posted on the LAPD website.
The Commission collected input about the policy from Los Angeles residents and LAPD officers online and at community meetings between March and May 2017.
Eighty-eight percent of LA residents said bodycam video should be released to the public. And among officers who responded, 31 percent said bodycam videos should “definitely” be released while 32 percent said the videos should “probably” be released.