Surprise: The Biggest Police Body Camera Program in the Country Has One Big Flaw

Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 12.41.02 AM

On Monday, the LAPD will mobilize its own major body camera system; 7,000 body cameras will be deployed. “The first batch of cameras — 860 devices purchased with about $1.5 million in private donations — will be given to officers within the next month, the LAPD’s chief information officer told the Police Commission on Tuesday,” the Los Angeles Times reported. It will be the largest body camera program in the nation, but many are concerned with a lack of transparency.

The department’s police commission voted in April to let officers review footage before writing their reports detailing what happened during an altercation with a citizen, and the department does not plan on letting the public view any footage unless there is a criminal or civil investigation taking place, the Los Angeles Times reports. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has explained that police oversight entities—the district attorney, city attorney, and the Police Commission and inspector general—will get to review the footage.

“I think people misunderstand transparency as having everybody and all the public have access to everything,” Beck said according to the Los Angeles Times. “And it isn’t so much that as having the ability for oversight by multiple entities outside of the Police Department. I think that’s the meaning of transparency. I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube.”

He also stated that part of the reason the footage would not be accessible to the public is due to protecting the privacy of people whose homes and/or incidents the police visit or respond to. “People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don’t think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public,” Beck stated.

However, one of the reasons so many people have called for putting body cameras on the police is to hold officers accountable for their actions, if members of the public believe there was wrongdoing. Letting the department keep the footage to itself and letting officers conceivably write their incident reports based on what can be seen in the footage doesn’t appear to curtail the overall problem, critics argue.

The Southern California branch of the ACLU has been a consistent critic of the LAPD’s policy, and it spoke out again last week. “We give police more authority than nearly any other public servant—the power to stop us and our neighbors, detain us, search us, even to kill in our name,” Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement. “The public has a right to know how police use that authority, and especially have a right to know what happened when police abuse that authority. This secrecy around peace officer records undermines transparency, obstructs efforts to hold law enforcement accountable for its actions, and breeds distrust between police and the communities they serve.”

A poll detailed in the recent statement, which was conducted for the ACLU, found four in five voters in California want the police to wear body cameras, and nearly 80 percent believe “where police have engaged in misconduct, the public should have access to the findings and conclusions of investigations into that misconduct.” As for situations where there is only alleged misconduct by a police officer, 64 percent supported giving the public access to investigation reports.

While the decision to instigate a body camera program appears to be a significant steptoward police accountability, it seems somewhat hollow without significant policies regarding transparency. For more information, here’s when you can record the police.

Written by Thor Benson for