The ACLU Responds to Body Cameras Used by the LAPD

The ACLU Responds to Body Cameras Used by the LAPD

In spite of the ACLU’s outcry about body cameras and their use, body cameras have become a part of the crime enforcement for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Body Cameras Recently Used

Recently two LAPD officers responded after receiving a call about a woman who was armed with some type of knife. After the police involved shooting, Norma Guzman, 37, was taken to a hospital where she died, according to the report filed by Corner Assistant Chief Ed Winter.

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

“Our understanding is that both officers discharged their weapons,” Police Sgt. Frank Preciado stated. He indicated that both police officers wore body cameras and the video from those cameras would be downloaded so it could be examined as part of the police officer shooting investigation. In addition to the footage from the body cameras video footage from other security cameras located in the area of the shooting will also be looked at and reviewed.

The police officer shooting happened in one of the first divisions of the LAPD where officers have been issued body cameras. Lopez indicated that both police officers were wearing body cameras which have been collected by the Force Investigation Division investigators, and will be analyzed for evidence."

The Hot Topic of Body Cameras

Body cameras being used by law enforcement has become a hot topic over the past couple of years due to various events that have taken place across the United States. A general observation of the topic would seem to indicate the use of body cameras on police officers has garnered widespread and enthusiastic support. However, on deeper inspection, the adoption of “body cams” have raised many concerns and relevant questions by both law enforcement as well as civilians and civilian rights groups such as the ACLU (i.e., American Civil Liberties Union).

ACLU Stand Against the Use of Body Cameras

The ACLU sent an 11-page letter in early September to federal officials, criticizing the adoption by the LAPD of body cameras for use by the city’s police officers and urged them that the program should be defunded. The ACLU letter indicated that the use of body cameras by the LAPD would make automatic recordings of events occurring to the public, thus violating a person’s right to privacy and the practice would undermine “the goals of transparency, accountability and creation of public trust that body-worn cameras should serve.”

A San Diego Body Cameras Example

San Diego and Rialito programs were early users of body cameras in Southern California. Working with a researcher from Cambridge University they discovered that the results of using body cameras resulted in an 88% decline in complaints against police officers and a 60% decline in police officers’ use of force.

In the San Diego Police Department, officers were wearing body cameras in at least two separate shootings earlier in the year. Because the public was not permitted access to the body camera footage, a heated controversy resulted. The stance of the SDPD is that once footage from body cameras become part of an investigation, they don’t have to release the footage to the public.

This raises the question about the public’s ability to view footage from body cameras under the freedom of information laws. Would releasing the footage really hamper any investigation by the police? Other relevant questions and concerns exist, such as whether police officers should use the video for both holding police officers accountable as well as for crime investigations? Should police officers be permitted to turn their body cameras off? Should video from body cameras be released in order to be used on TV and social media? What is the length of time footage from body cameras should be kept? And who should have access to the body camera footage?

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Response to the ACLU Letter

The Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, has defended the stance of the department and has responded to the ACLU letter since receiving it.

Previously the LAPD has stated it would not release body camera footage to the public, unless they were required to release it due to criminal or civil court proceedings. Mayor Garcetti has stated that there might be individual cases that would permit LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and the city to release related videos.

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

Garcetti further stated that since their use the body cameras the LAPD uses have successfully captured video evidence in several sensitive situations. The mayor gave an example where an officer responded in a domestic violence case and was able to capture the altercation that occurred between the victim and suspect because of the body camera he was wearing.

“That is not something that should be shared publicly,” said Mayor Garcetti.

“I won’t do that when there are rape victims, I won’t do that when there are domestic violence victims,” he further stated. “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.

In responding directly to the ACLU’s request for videos to be released to the public and social media, Chief Beck has said that automatically releasing videos might result in people being fearful about 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,” Chief Beck said. “That is not fair.”

Chief Beck further said at the same press conference that body camera footage would be shared with the Police Commission of the city and its inspection general if necessary for use in civil or criminal cases. The footage would also be shared with the Los Angeles city attorney as well as the district attorney.

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

Are the LA Mayor and Police Chief Misrepresenting the ACLU Position?

ACLU senior staff attorney Peter Bibring, of the Southern California chapter has stated that Mayor Garcetti and Chief Beck are misrepresenting the position of the ACLU with respect to officers wearing body cameras.

Bribing has stated that the ACLU is not advocating body camera videos be disclosed to the public. Instead, he indicates the ACLU is requesting the release of body camera videos by the LAPD in order to demonstrate and capture any alleged misconduct by police officers or the requested release of videos to private individuals that show their interactions with police officers.

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

The National Movement for the Use of Body Cameras

President Obama allocated $75 million federal funds in 2014 to assist police departments purchasing body cameras. This was part of the efforts he had to strengthen the relationships between the public and police, which has been slowly deteriorating since the Michael Brown shooting.

The chief information officer of the LAPD informed the Police Commission in early September that the department has applied for some of the money that President Obama made available so they could purchase approximately 700 body cameras. Further LAPD plans include purchasing an additional 7,000 body cameras for use by it’s police officers. In addition to the federal money to purchase body cameras the city also has budgeted money for their purchase, and officials are also looking at outside grants in order to get additional funds for the program.

Negative Side Effects of Body Cameras

I addition to the positive side effects of body cameras, there are also negative ones. One negative effect is the impact they’ll have on the effectiveness of police. Even though complaints by citizens decline when body cameras are used, another way of looking at this is that it could be due to police officers being reluctant, or even willing, to engage the public, especially if everything is going to be recorded. Citizens also may be reluctant or unwilling to report crimes they are witnesses to if they are also aware they are going to be recorded.

On the other side, the benefits of body cameras may influence how both police officers and civilians behave if they’re aware that they’re being recorded. However, if body cameras on police officers become the norm, the results could be seen as questionable. For example, eyewitness accounts of crimes aren’t always as reliable as we may think. In time we may discover that body camera video is just as unreliable as the testimony of eyewitnesses. What if the camera isn’t reliable, or the events occur off camera, or only part of the video can be used as evidence? In spite of the positives and negatives, the use of body cameras will no doubt become an integral part of the way law enforcement operates. Only time will determine if their use is either effective or harmful.

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