7,000 police body cams to go to LA cops

© Rick Wilking
Hundreds of police in Los Angeles, California will begin wearing body cameras Monday, after a year of preparations. Once fully operational, the LAPD body cam program will be the most extensive in the US, but recordings will be kept from the public.

The first wave of cameras was funded by $1.5 million from private donors, such as Steven Spielberg and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They will go to 860 officers in LAPD’s Mission division, covering the northwestern suburbs in the San Fernando Valley. LAPD plans to outfit more than 7,000 officers with body cameras over the coming months. By contrast, New York is currently using 60 cameras in a pilot program, and wants to buy 5,000 more.

While favoring the use of body cameras in principle, the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Southern California chapter has written in opposition to the LAPD program, objecting to the policy of allowing officers to review the recordings, but not the general public. A recent ACLU poll found that 79 percent of California voters favor public access to the findings and conclusions of investigations into police misconduct, including body cam footage.

“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,”said Peter Bibring, the chapter’s director of police practices.

The LA Police Commission adopted the policy in April, with three votes in favor and one opposed. The sole dissenter, Commissioner Robert Saltzman, called the cameras “a great idea,” but maintains the policy limiting access to the footage is “quite problematic,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Further north up the Pacific coast, the police in Seattle, Washington have deployed almost 1000 cameras. The city has reached out to hackers for devising software that would allow the body cam footage to be shared with the public, while redacting the faces of officers and suspects to comply with privacy laws.

Body cam use is part of a broader push for police reform around the US. With complaints about police brutality and fatal shootings backed by amateur video recordings, police across the country have found themselves in the spotlight.

In addition to outfitting officers with cameras, the LAPD has conducted training seminars about changing the department’s approach to policing, with the emphasis on de-escalation and community outreach.

“We were warriors,” Deputy Chief Bill Scott recently told a roomful of officers, explaining that in decades past the LAPD trained its officers to behave like soldiers in the never-ending war on crime. Now, Scott said, officers needed to think of themselves as guardians watching over communities, rather than an occupation force.

Part of Scott’s lectures, according to the LA Times, is teaching officers how to better communicate with the public, from posture to “tactical language,” as LAPD calls the use of expletives when dealing with suspects. Just because policy allows the use of foul language to establish dominance doesn’t mean the officers should use it every time.

“That’s one of the biggest problems that we have,” Scott said. “How we talk to people.”

To hammer the point home, Deputy Chief Bea Girmala described the chaos during the 1992 Rodney King riots to the new officers. The uprising broke out after LAPD officers, whose brutal beating of King was caught on tape, were acquitted of assault charges. Police were held in such low esteem by the public at that time, that a coffee shop refused to serve them.