LAPD to make body camera, patrol car videos public
The LAPD's years-long practice of keeping video from body cameras and patrol cars under wraps will soon end
By Kate Mather
Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Police Department's years-long practice of keeping video from body cameras and patrol cars under wraps will soon end after the agency's civilian bosses approved a policy Tuesday that requires the release of recordings in the future.
The 4-0 vote by the Police Commission marks a dramatic about-face for a department that refused to release such footage even as it rolled out thousands of body cameras to officers across the city in recent years.
The new approach will give the public a firsthand look at some of the most crucial moments involving the LAPD, including shootings by officers, deaths that occur in their custody and other encounters when they use force that kills or seriously injures someone.
The implications could be felt beyond Los Angeles. Law enforcement agencies across the country are still struggling with when and how to release video — if at all. In California, lawmakers' attempts at a statewide answer have repeatedly stalled, leaving a patchwork of policies with varying degrees of transparency.
Video can be a crucial piece of evidence in encounters involving police officers, both for those investigating the incidents and for outsiders interested in how they unfolded. For many, the release of those recordings offers residents the chance to see for themselves exactly what happened, rather than rely on sometimes-conflicting accounts from police and witnesses.
But opponents fear that making such footage public could thwart an investigation, inflame tensions between the public and the police or, as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has said, offer a limited, incomplete snapshot of an incident if other evidence isn't also shared.
When a draft of the policy was made public last month, Beck called it a "great start," noting that it called for the release of other information along with video to provide more context about an incident.
Under the new rules for the LAPD, video from "critical incidents" involving the police would automatically become public within 45 days after they occur. The Police Commission or police chief could also opt to release video from other encounters if they decided doing so was "in the public interest."
The policy would extend beyond video captured by police cameras. Other footage the LAPD has of a critical incident, including recordings from security cameras or bystanders' cellphones, would also be released.
There is also a caveat that allows the release to be delayed if the police chief and two police commissioners unanimously decide there is a valid, and specific, reason for doing so. The release policy will apply to shootings and other critical incidents that take place after the new rules take effect in 30 days.
The public has seen glimpses of LAPD body camera footage recently — from a deadly police shooting on skid row and a hit-and-run investigation that prompted allegations of officer misconduct — but only after the recordings became part of a court case and were published by news outlets. Earlier this month, the district attorney's office released video from a police shooting for the first time when prosecutors announced they would not charge an LAPD officer who killed a homeless man near the Venice boardwalk in 2015.
The final version of the proposal sent to the Police Commission was a year in the making. The panel brought in a group from the New York University School of Law to collect feedback. The results indicated broad support — from both the public and police — for making the footage public.
The LAPD and the union representing rank-and-file officers were also consulted. So was Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who had harsh words for the proposal now on the table.
Lacey laid out her position in a memo last year, saying her office would not publicly release video evidence from a police shooting until after deciding whether to file criminal charges. Doing so earlier, Lacey wrote, could bias potential jurors.
"The Police Commission policy jeopardizes the justice process by exposing witnesses to video evidence before they are interviewed by our independent investigators," she said last month. "It will make seeking justice in these politically charged cases more difficult."
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