On Tuesday, August 7 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors will consider a motion to hire an expert consultant in the issue of law enforcement body cams. The expert will be directed to come back to the board in four months with a report that looks at all the elements necessary for the patrol deputies of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs Department to acquire and begin using body-worn cameras.
On the surface, this sounds like a fine idea.
Yet, if one takes a look at recent LA County history on the subject of body cams, bringing in yet another expert, or group of experts, who will produce one more addition to the already large and teetering stack of reports on the matter of the county’s sheriff’s department having body-worn cameras—well, it’s worrisome. First, the hope that an outside person will be able to quickly get up to speed on this mess in order to produce a report in a timely fashion…..let’s just say, if the past is any guide, we wouldn’t bet the ranch on it.
Furthermore, its unclear how a new consultant, no matter how learned and experienced, will magically produce a new and fabulous solution to the existing sticking points between the sheriff and the supes, which now seem to be the primary cause of the hold-up.
The LASD and the board are already into well over four years of researching, modeling, reporting, and re-reporting on the issue of buying and implementing body-worn cameras, or BWCs, for the nation’s largest sheriff’s department.
Never mind that during those same four years, two-thirds of the major law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have managed to fund, implement, or are in the process of implementing, BWCs for their patrol officers.
Unfortunately, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department still doesn’t seem to be terribly close to joining their ranks.
Reports, Pilots and reports on pilots
Here’s a semi-brief summary of what we’re talking about.
In 2012, the Citizens’ Commission on Jail Violence recommend that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department use “lapel cameras as an investigative tool” to address what the CCJV called problematic use of force. On November 2, 2012, the department delivered an in depth study detailing the various camera types as well as implementation options, but expressed concern about investing in such a “rapidly changing technology” at the time.
Yet, in September 2014, just shy of four years ago, the county and the LA sheriff’s department did make an initial investment with an eight-month volunteer pilot program to test the concept of body-worn cameras at four LASD stations, namely Carson, Century, Lancaster, and Temple. The program tested four brands and five models of body-cam systems, deploying a total of 96 cameras, from September 2014 to April 2015. Over the course of the program, the department asked for and received detailed feedback from the participants, through both electronic questionnaires and focus groups, which were held at each of the four stations. So far, so good.
The Office of the Inspector General monitored the program, and did additional due diligence, such as consulting with other departments that had already worked with body cams. The OIG issued a 59-page report in September 2015, recommending that the LASD move ahead on acquiring and instituting the cameras, forthwith. Yes, they would be costly, and who should bear the cost would need to be determined. But—the OIG authors wrote—“the cost of not having the cameras is likely to be much higher.”
Hearteningly, nearly all of the deputies who participated in the pilot program’s focus groups said that the body cams “would be a huge asset.” Deputies believed that the cameras would protect them from “baseless civilian complaints,” explaining that, on patrol, “you’re being recorded everywhere you go.” So having their own body-worn cameras would, deputies felt, more accurately document events from the officers’ perspectives.
Deputies also felt that viewing footage from an event after the fact, helped them write more accurate reports.
Furthermore, quite a few deputies told examiners that they missed the cams when the program was over.
“Video recording is a critical component of modern urban policing,”concluded the OIG in the 2015 report. “Video technology is now so advanced that it is present in almost every pocket, attached to the heads of skateboarders, and hovering above us as part of what we once called model aircraft. Failure to incorporate that technology is not just a missed opportunity, but a shortcoming that the public is increasingly unwilling to accept…”
In the summer of 2016, Inspector General Max Huntsman issued another report in which he renewed his recommendation that the board move on the matter, ASAP.
If the board was “looking to reform the sheriff’s department,” Huntsman told the supervisors in 2016, the body cams were the best place to begin.
“It’s a win-win.”
High costs and lengthy rollouts
Things still seemed to be moving ahead when on July 12, 2016, the board of supes directed the county’s Chief Executive Officer to prepare a budget proposal in support of the BWC plan that the LASD was also preparing at the board’s direction.
The CEO—with the help of the sheriff’s department, along representatives of other county agencies such as the DA’s office, the PD’s office, and LA County Probation—explored the matter and came back 15 months later, on Oct. 17, 2017, with a report that suggested a surprisingly lengthy four-year phase in plan (yes we said four years), at the end of which time everybody in the sheriff’s department who was going to have one of the 5,895 BWCs scheduled for purchase, would have received it.
The cost of this phase-in would be $85 million, with $55.2 million of that a cost reoccurring yearly, most of it due to the need for hiring 239 new LASD people to implement and run the program, according to the report. And most of those potential new hires were required, said the LASD, due to the flood of California Public Record Act requests that would surely be forthcoming, once the body cams were in use.
Additionally, the CEOs report suggested the hiring of a new consultant to research and write another new report that contained more detailed recommendations, before the four-year phase-in would get going.
(It should likely be mentioned here that the CEO’s report was supposed to take four months to research, write and deliver, but instead it took 15 months.)
Meanwhile, in frustration, a lot of LASD rank and file went out and bought their own body cams.
A deeper dive
But there’s more.
In September of last year, before the CEOs report arrived, Sheriff Jim McDonnell asked the department’s Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) to help with the BWC issue by finding out what the public felt about the matter, and then doing their own report—which turned out to be an excellent idea.
Those appointed to the COC’s Ad Hoc Committee to explore the topic were Commissioners Xavier Thompson, Robert Bonner, James P. Harris, and Sean Kennedy, a diverse and very experienced group.
(You can check out their mini-bios here.)
The resulting 58-page report , which was released last month on July 26, is very smart, very thorough, and very worth reading (or at least skimming) for those interested.
In their investigation, the COC Ad Hoc committee developed a survey, and published it online to obtain public comment, which produced around 2,000 detailed responses. They also received public comment at COC meetings, and at town hall meetings.
In addition, the committee met with and obtained comments from the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS), the union representing rank and file deputies, which took a poll of its members on the topic, the majority of which supported the deployment of BWCs.
They also met with nationally respected subject matter experts on the question of BWCs, i.e. the same sort of experts that Tuesday’s motion now proposes to hire.
In the resulting report, the COC gently suggested that the LASD, et al, could scale down their rollout from four years to two. The report also suggested that, while the body cams might require some extra personnel, they might not need need all 239, a number that is particularly challenging since the department is already problematically low on personnel, along with the fact that there appears to be inordinate number of existing sworn department members who are out with injuries, and what have you.
In addition, the Ad Hoc committee wrote about a study that suggested when the cameras were finally in use, some of the costs of implementation would be offset by a savings of between $2,909 to $3,178 per user annually, mainly, they said, “through significantly faster investigations of complaints,” and the reduction in the number of complaints themselves, that typically followed the introduction of BWCs. If the model holds, this suggests approximately $16-18 million in savings per year for the sheriff’s department. It won’t pay for the cameras, but it chips away at the price tag.
On the topic of cost, the report also noted that in the last five years—from FY 2012-13 through FY 2016-17—the county has paid out $95.1 million in judgments and settlements in civil cases involving excessive force by Sheriff’s patrol deputies.
“Over time,” the report suggested, “BWCs will likely substantially reduce millions of dollars in judgments and settlements” by the county “based on lawsuits alleging use of excessive or unnecessary force.”
In addition, they wrote, the use of body cams “reduce the number of civilian complaints and the time, effort and costs to deal with and resolve such complaints.”
In other words, as OIG Huntsman said earlier, it’s a win-win.
That other LEO in town
In looking at all of the above issues, and sticking points, it’s helpful to examine what the other big Southern California law enforcement agency has done on the body cam front.
Two years ago, in June 2016, after its own rounds with consultants and reports, the Los Angeles police commission approved a nearly $60 million plan to equip 7,000 Los Angeles police officers with body-worn cameras.
The city entered into a five-year agreement with Taser International Inc. to the tune of $31.2 million in equipment (including 4,400 cameras) and services. Another $23.7 million went to Sprint for phones and data, with 4.3 million earmarked for what the Public Safety Committee Report designated as “infrastructure.”
By the summer of 2017, approximately 4000 LAPD officers had body worn cameras, with the rest of the front line officers getting their BOCs by early 2018.
It is instructive to note that the LAPD did not feel it had the need to hire additional staff to work on California PRA requests because their attorneys concluded that video footage relating to law enforcement and investigative encounters with members of the public would be deemed to be “evidence” and, therefore, exempt from the California PRA.
It remains to be seen if the LAPD’s analysis “will withstand judicial scrutiny in the future,” wrote Sean Kennedy, the executive director of Loyola Law School’s Center for Juvenile Law & Policy, the former Federal Public Defender for the Central District of California, and a member of the COC’s Ad Hoc committee. Yet, Kennedy also wrote that, based on his own research and analysis, he believed that the LAPD experts read the law correctly.
Consultants and Solutions
All this brings us back to the motion to be considered at Tuesday’s board meeting.
As we said above, as did the oversight commission, along with a smart LA Times editorial, the idea of a new consultant is….concerning—even though the motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Hilda Solis is informative, well written, and clearly intended to somehow get this stalled train on the move again.
The board has understandably balked at the high price tag for the BWC project. Furthermore, like most everyone else, the supes aren’t overly happy with the slo-mo four-year roll out the LASD has suggested.
The Civilian Oversight Commission has also politely questioned some of the costs, along with the roll-out time, which is more than twice the length that the LAPD needed to equip a somewhat larger number of officers than the LASD proposes to equip.
With all of the above in mind, it sounds like the board is looking to this consultant to be a some kind of tie-breaking marriage counselor to help work out the differences between the board and the sheriff (and the CEO), that are preventing the necessary funds from being allocated, and the roll-out from beginning.
The COC recommended that the disagreeing parties man and woman up and find a way to settle their differences. (Although they used more diplomatic language.)
“The Civilian Oversight Commission,” the Ad Hoc committee wrote, “stands ready to assist and facilitate this discussion so that a BWC program can be implemented by the LASD without further delay.”
Maybe that’s a good idea.
And, if all else fails, we propose the board and the sheriff hire a nice family mediator.
As it happens, we can suggest a terrifically smart, compassionate, and experienced person if anybody’s looking.
(We’re only sort of kidding about this.)
Maybe the consultant idea will work, but sadly it is equally likely that it will, as the COC thinks, delay the process for another year.
Thus, if anybody wants the name of that reasonably priced but very skilled mediator, you know where to reach us.