WHAT GOOD ARE BODY CAMS IF WE CAN’T SEE THE FOOTAGE?
In his state of the city speech earlier this month, Mayor Eric Garcetti promised body cameras for all LAPD patrol officers. “In the aftermath of Ferguson, Staten Island, and now, North Charleston,” Garcetti said, “relationship-based policing has put us on track to be the biggest city in America to put body cameras on every officer on the street.”
More recently LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said that officers could review their body cam footage before writing reports, a decision that has caused controversy.
But, as major law enforcement departments around the country gear up to begin the widespread use of body cameras, the squabble about officers viewing footage prior to writing reports is going to pale next to the far more central question that the coming widespread use of the cameras will force: What about the public? Can you and I view footage from body cams through the use of public records acts requests?
It is this question that reporter Robinson Meyer asks in a new story for the Atlantic.
“Body cameras are supposed to be instruments of public accountability,” Meyer writes, “but how realistic is it for the public to have access to the footage?”
Therein, it turns out, lies the rub.
Here’s a clip from Robinson’s story:
Soon, thousand of police officers across the country will don body-worn cameras when they go out among the public. Those cameras will generate millions of hours of footage—intimate views of commuters receiving speeding tickets, teens getting arrested for marijuana possession, and assault victims at some of the worst moments of their lives.
As the Washington Post and the Associated Press have reported, lawmakers in at least 15 states have proposed exempting body-cam footage from local open records laws. But the flurry of lawmaking speaks to a larger crisis: Once those millions of hours of footage have been captured, no one is sure what to do with them.
I talked to several representatives from privacy, civil rights, and progressive advocacy groups working on body cameras. Even among these often allied groups, there’s little consensus about the kind of policies that should exist around releasing footage.
Body cameras were introduced as a tool of public accountability, but making their videos available to the public might be too fraught, too complex, and too expensive to actually put into practice.
Much of the ambiguity around body cameras comes down to this: Despite their general popularity, despite being the only policy change called for by the family of Michael Brown, body cameras are a little weird. They are both a way for the public to see what police officers are doing and a way for people to be surveilled. If a body-cam program, scaled across an entire department, were to release its footage willy-nilly, it would be a privacy catastrophe for untold people. Police-worn cameras don’t just capture footage from city streets or other public places. Officers enter people’s homes, often when those people are at their most vulnerable.
So while body-cam footage is “very clearly a public interest record,” says Emily Shaw, the national policy manager at the Sunlight Foundation, it is also “just full of private information.”
What’s more, there’s no easy way to fix this….
In a related story for the New York Times titled “Downside of Police Body Cameras: Your Arrest Hits YouTube,” Timothy Williams writes:
In Bremerton, Wash., the police chief, Steven Strachan, is wary about making such footage public. After testing body cameras last year, he decided not to buy them for his 71 officers because he feared that the state’s public records laws would require him to turn over the film.
Requests for footage, he said, would create an unwieldy administrative burden for his small department and could potentially violate privacy.
“We hit the pause button,” Chief Strachan said. “Our view is we don’t want to be part of violating people’s privacy for commercial or voyeuristic reasons. Everyone’s worst day is now going to be put on YouTube for eternity.
The U.S. House of Representatives is considering a bill that would limit access to the footage to civilians who are directly involved in the police encounters.
But some law enforcement think that the public should indeed have access.
…[Mike] Wagers, the chief operating officer of the Seattle police, said he understood that the proliferation of body cameras had whetted the public’s appetite for access to the footage. The department, he said, is testing 12 body cameras but plans to outfit 900 patrol officers in 2016.
He said the ultimate goal was to post online every moment of officers’ body camera recordings.
“What’s the purpose of collecting the data?” he asked. “To move to accountability and get to the truth.”
Well, yes. The logistics are likely not going to be simple to solve. But solve them we must.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The 30 minute video above is body cam footage from a fatal shooting in Draper, Utah. It was released after the shooting by the Draper Police Department.
DESPITE RECENT TROUBLING INCIDENTS, THE LAPD HAS COME A LONG WAY SINCE THE RODNEY KING ERA, BOTH AT THE TOP AND IN THE STREET, SAYS AUTHOR JOE DOMANICK
On the topic of footage, most of us have never seen the October 2014 surveillance video of 22-year-old Clinton Alford Jr. showing how Alford was yanked off his bike then, when on the ground with his hands behind him, kicked repeatedly in the head by a Los Angeles Police officer named Richard Garcia, 34, and shocked in the back with an electric stun gun.
But some of those who have seen the video, including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, have described it in alarming terms. The actions of Garcia, said Beck, “were not only beyond departmental policy but were in fact criminal.”
Garcia is one of three LAPD officers facing assault under color of authority charges.
Reporter/author Andrew Gumbel, writing for the Guardian, talked to LAPD expert and author Joe Domanick, about whether or not this cluster of charges against LAPD officers represents a dramatic and hopeful change from the LAPD of the Rodney King/Rampart days.
When it comes to LAPD history, Domanick is right person to ask. He is the author of To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD’s Century of War in the City of Dreams, and his brand new book on the department: Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing, will be out in August.
Here are some clips from Gumbel’s story:
“The department is far, far better in terms of dealing with officer use of force and officer-involved shootings,” said Joe Domanick, the author of acclaimed books about the LAPD. “Charlie Beck has vowed that if there’s ever another riot in Los Angeles, it won’t be on his watch. He’s really sincere about these things.”[SNIP]
Since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown and the rioting that followed in Ferguson last summer, Chief Beck, a career LAPD cop who witnessed the 1992 riots first-hand, has made extensive efforts to head off the risk of similar unrest in Los Angeles.
Last month he held a closed-door meeting with community leaders and other regional police chiefs to discuss the risk of a Ferguson-type powder keg blowing in the vast concrete jungles of south LA, which remains poor, underserved by businesses and city services and rife with racial divisions.
Such efforts at community outreach have gone a long way to mitigate criticisms of department policies such as “stop and frisk”, which has caused an uproar in New York, or the continuing use of injunctions limiting the civil rights of gang members. Earlier this month, Beck went out of his way to condemn the police shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina – a continent away – saying he too would have arrested the officer involved.
In addition to Garcia’s, two other LAPD excessive force cases are working their way through the courts. Jonathan Lai, who was caught on tape using his baton to hit a man already on his knees with his hands on his head, and Mary O’Callaghan, accused of kicking a woman….after she was in handcuffs, have court appearances in early May.
Domanick noted that over the 20-30 years before the Rodney King case, only one LAPD officer was prosecuted for acts of violence.
THE JOB: NEW YORK COP PENS TRUE TALES ABOUT HIS 20 YEARS ON THE NYPD
And while we’re on the topic of police and books….
Like many of those in law enforcement, Steve Osborne, a former lieutenant in the New York Police Department’s Detective Bureau, is a great storyteller. We know this because Osborne has gathered his stories into a book called “The Job: True Tales from the Life of a New York City Cop..”
The book was released last week, and is already getting excellent reviews.
The timing is, of course, serindipitous. Right now we need to hear the voices of officers who are able to bring the rest of us into their experiences—-which can, in turn, help humanize the argument that too often has been shrill and toxic on both sides.
Last week, Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interviewed Osborne, and, I think you’ll find it an enjoyable listen.
Osborne talks about his first call about a “foul odor” as a rookie, on stopping a murderous knife fight, on working in plainclothes, on foolishly following a suspect into a subway tunnel when the train was coming, on how he nearly shot another cop, and more.
Here’re a couple of short excerpts from the interview:
On whether he ever fired his gun on the job
That’s, like, one of the most common questions. And when I tell people “no” they seem disappointed. It’s like you watch TV and you think cops are firing their guns every night, but that’s not true. And over the course of 20 years, I was involved in thousands and thousands of arrests. On top of that — I couldn’t possibly count — tens of thousands of civilian interactions. No, I never had to fire my gun once, believe it or not.
I had plenty of opportunities. There’s at least a half a dozen guys that are still walking around out there that I would’ve been completely justified using deadly physical force, but at the last possible second I found another way to resolve it. But make no mistake about it: If I had to do it, I would do it. I was fully prepared to do it. Luckily for them and luckily for me, always at the last second, I found a way to resolve the situation without having to resort to deadly physical force. That’s what you have to remember: … You have different tools. You got a nightstick; you got Mace; you got a Taser; you got a gun. Your gun is your last resort, after everything else fails.
On his opinion of the cell video footage of police officer Michael Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott in South Carolina (Slager has been charged with murder)
If you’re expecting me to defend that guy down in South Carolina, forget about it, it’s not going to happen. I saw the video just like everybody else did and I can’t possibly explain what was going on in his head. We don’t shoot fleeing felons. I’ve been in that situation thousands of times, and I never had to resort to deadly physical force.
STUDENT HIT WITH $197 TICKET WHEN CROSSING (NOT JAYWALKING) TO GET TO CLASS ON TIME
And finally, on the somewhat unrelated topic of pedestrian crosswalks…
LA Times columnist Steve Lopez was under the impression that you could still cross in the crosswalk at a downtown Los Angeles intersection as long as you were back on the opposing sidewalk by the time that the WALK/DON’TWALK timer counted down to zero.
In truth, I thought so too and have often made the dash during those last 8 or 9 seconds to get to the Main Street entrance of the U.S. Central District Courthouse.
It seems that struggling college student Edwardo Lopez was also suffering from the same misapprehension as Steve Lopez and I were. It turns out, however, that all of us were wrong. The last 10 seconds in a crosswalk function like a yellow light and, even if you make it easily from one side of the street to the other before the counter runs down and the light turns red, you are breaking the law and may be ticketed.
Edwardo Lopez got such a ticket as he was rushing to class—a ticket that had $197 fine attached to it. For most of us, $197 ticket would certainly be unpleasant. But for Edwardo, the $$ amount was nearly one third of the $712 monthly rent for the small one-bedroom apartment where he lives with his brother Miguel, 25, their hard-working mother and two younger sisters.
No one’s blaming the LAPD officer who gave Edwardo the ticket. But columnist Lopez suggests that the cash hit feels a bit usurious for hardworking, lower income people like Edwardo.
So what to do? Lopez has a few suggestions.
It should be noted that we at WLA are not necessarily endorsing Lopez’s solutions, just the discussion. Although we do wonder why lower income people couldn’t pay off such a fine with community service if they didn’t have the cash money.
Here’s a clip from Lopez’s column:
Eduardo Lopez, 22, has not caught many breaks in his young life. If anything, that’s made him more determined to succeed.
The all-star soccer player wants to finish college, he wants to be a firefighter, and he wants to help get his family out of the hole it’s been in from the day he was born.
That means he’s always on the go, and on a recent morning, Lopez was really in a hurry. He had worked a minimum-wage graveyard shift loading pallets for an export company near LAX, then jumped a Green Line train and transferred to the Blue Line.
At the Metro station downtown, he hustled up to street level and saw his bus approaching 7th and Hope streets. If he caught it, he’d make it to his first class at Glendale Community College on time. He hadn’t slept in 24 hours, but he had to get to school.
No problem, he thought. The “don’t walk” sign was blinking. The countdown was at 10 seconds, as he recalls, giving him plenty of time.[SNIP]
…In that scenario, a $500,000-a-year broker pays the same penalty as a struggling student. But it’s chump change to one, and a month of groceries for the other.
It’s the equivalent of an added tax for the crime of being poor. Sorry, young man, but you’ll have to pay a far higher percentage of your income than the rich guy.
The system should have a little more discretion built into it, maybe even a sliding scale based on ability to pay.
Eduardo had to take time out of another busy day to go to court and ask if he could pay off his debt by doing community work. No, he was told. He has until April 27 to pay up, unless he tries to fight it, with no guarantees except that he’d eat up more of his valuable time.