By Jennifer Lynch
Next week the Department of Justice will likely decide whether to issue a grant to the Los Angeles Police Department to purchase 700 body-worn video cameras. Because LAPD’s body camera policy fails to ensure accountability and transparency and would, in fact, hide almost all camera footage from the public, we are urging the DOJ to deny funding.
LAPD applied for the grant to fund its body-worn camera program through the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) Body-Worn Camera Pilot Implementation Program earlier this year. After the shootings in Ferguson, Missouri and other places around the country created a national discourse about the need for police accountability, President Obama announced plans to “strengthen community policing,” including contributing $75 million over three years to provide a 50 percent match grant to states and localities that purchase body worn cameras. LAPD could be the first law enforcement agency to receive funds under the grant.
Los Angeles could also become the largest city in the country to use body cameras on a wide scale. LAPD has already purchased 860 cameras using private donations and plans to purchase 7,000 cameras total. The city has a goal of outfitting every LAPD officer with a body camera.
But amid these ambitious plans, LAPD has enacted a body camera use policy that runs completely counter to every reason to employ body cameras in the first place. At its heart, the policy appears designed to protect law enforcement officers rather than members of the public who they have sworn to serve.
The policy fails for four main reasons:
- It does not provide for any public access to body camera video—even in cases of shootings or alleged misconduct. In fact, LAPD has made clear that it will not release video footage unless required to do so in court—or unless the chief, in his discretion, believes it would be “beneficial.”
- It not only permits but requires officers to review body camera footage before they write up their reports—even before they provide an initial statement to investigators when they are involved in critical uses of force or accused of grave misconduct.
- It has no consequences for officers who fail to turn on their cameras during use-of-force incidents.
- It provides no clear rules to prevent LAPD from using body cameras as a tool to surveil the public at large. It doesn’t address the use of back-end analysis tools such as facial recognition on footage; nor does it provide guidelines for use of the cameras during First Amendment-protected activity.
Given LAPD’s notorious history of police misconduct, secrecy, unlawful surveillance, and resistance to outside review stretching back to at least the 1930s, perhaps it should come as no surprise that the agency has enacted a policy to protect its own rather than ensure accountability and transparency. The policy is also consistent with the hard-line stance LAPD has taken with respect to releasing automated license plate camera (ALPR) data. However, the DOJ should not add insult to injury by funding this program.
LAPD’s policy not only runs counter to recommendations from the ACLU, but also to recommendations from law enforcement organizations like the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), an “independent research organization” whose board of directors is made up of police chiefs from agencies around the country. PERF has recommended that
with certain limited exceptions . . . , body-worn camera video footage should be made available to the public upon request—not only because the videos are public records but also because doing so enables police departments to demonstrate transparency and openness in their interactions with members of the community.
Even one of Los Angeles’ own police commissioners—who cast the lone dissenting vote against the policy—criticized it for its failure to address release of footage to the public and for allowing officers to review footage before writing reports. He said that LAPD’s process for adopting the policy “undermines the goal here of accountability and trust.”
LAPD’s policy also runs counter the BJA grant program’s requirements. The program requires recipients to enact policies for body camera use that, “at a minimum increase transparency and accessibility, provide appropriate access to information, allow for public posting of policy and procedures, and encourage community interaction and relationship building.” LAPD’s policy fails to meet even these baseline goals.
The President intended DOJ’s body camera program to “build and sustain trust between communities and those who serve and protect these communities.” But if the DOJ is really serious about doing so, this is not the way. The DOJ must send a message to other grant applicants by denying LAPD’s funding request. Police-worn body cameras are fraught with enough potential threats to civil liberties; we don’t need harmful policies designed to shield police action from public scrutiny reinforcing these threats.