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Coming soon to L.A.: 'cop cams'

This editorial is from the Los Angeles Times:

In less than two months, new Los Angeles Police Commission President Steve Soboroff has persuaded private donors to put up $1.2 million to buy 600 video cameras that Los Angeles police officers will wear on the job. The money is the first step in a project that could dramatically change policing in the city by increasing the accountability of both officers and the people they come into contact with.

Soboroff said officers will be testing different camera models this month and could be outfitted with the new technology within nine months. That's lightning speed compared with the effort to put cameras in patrol cars, which was first proposed two decades ago by the Christopher Commission, after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King by police. In 2005, the federal monitor overseeing the department after the Rampart corruption scandal again called for cameras, to ensure that officers were treating minorities fairly. Yet only about a quarter of patrol cars now have cameras.

Whether cameras are mounted on patrol cars or worn by the officers themselves, the idea is the same: to create an objective record of interactions between police and the public and, ultimately, to reduce conflict. Recording traffic stops, shootings and other encounters can help discourage — or document — police misconduct and can also serve to clear officers if they are falsely accused of wrongdoing.

While the on-body camera technology is still fairly new, an initial study from the Rialto Police Department showed that use-of-force incidents and public complaints dropped significantly when officers recorded their interactions with the public. The implications are tremendous. Some of the most contentious battles in public safety — including allegations of excessive force and racial profiling — could be minimized. That could lead to fewer lawsuits against the department, fewer multimillion-dollar judgments or settlements for taxpayersand fewer violent confrontations between police and the public. As Chief Charlie Beck told the Los Angeles Times editorial board last month, all people — police and civilians alike — are more cautious when they know they're being filmed.

The increased accountability for all parties is why both the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the American Civil Liberties Union have backed the use of body-mounted cameras — with some caveats.

The cameras could present a major invasion of privacy. They will enter people's homes. They'll record officers, victims, suspects and bystanders, often in traumatic circumstances. When video is captured, how it's used and who may view it are critical issues that will determine whether on-body cameras are a success or an abuse.

We urge the LAPD to conduct a transparent, deliberative process to develop policies to govern the use of on-body cameras. The department should engage not only the police union and the ACLU but the broader public on how to balance the promise of accountability with the potential loss of privacy. Will the cameras be on all the time and, if not, at what point in an interaction will they be switched on? Will officers be required to tell people they're being recorded? Under what circumstances, if any, can a citizen or a suspect ask an officer to turn off the camera? How long will the LAPD keep the video it records? Will someone caught on "cop cam" be able to view the tape or make copies of it? Will the recordings be public records, accessible by formal request?

This technology holds great promise for police and the public, with the right protections. No camera should begin recording until a public policy is in place.


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