Should the feds fund body cameras for local police across the country?

Officer Guillermo Espinoza pushes a button to turn his lapel camera on and off. The cameras don't roll for the entire shift, only when an officer presses record.
Officer Guillermo Espinoza pushes a button to turn his lapel camera on and off. The cameras don't roll for the entire shift, only when an officer presses record.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, has put the spotlight on lapel cameras for local police officers. The LAPD has given the technology a trial run with a few dozen officers. But now a Burbank Congressman is calling for the federal government to pick up the tab for body cameras nationwide.

In a letter he’s circulating to Congressional colleagues, Democrat Adam Schiff of Burbank is asking the Department of Justice to help pay for tiny cameras to be worn on the body of police officers. Schiff says the availability of a video record improves community confidence in law enforcement. "The officer knows it’s filmed and the citizen knows it’s being filmed." He says it may prevent many altercations from taking place,  citing statistics from the city of Rialto, where citizen complaints dropped by 80 percent since its police officers started wearing cameras.

The cameras cost between $300 and $700. The head of the Police Commission, Steve Soboroff, raised more than a million dollars from private donors like Steven Spielberg and the Dodgers to pay for LA’s cameras.

So why should the federal government get involved? "One of the things the Department of Justice does very well," says Schiff, is "help local police departments adopt best practices by encouraging the use of new technologies and encouraging training methods.” He says the DOJ can help departments acquire cameras, get used to using them and develop privacy policies.

Of course, just having cameras isn’t a panacea for policing problems. Footage can be deleted if an officer doesn’t hit the record button. Then there are questions about how long the video should be kept and who should have access to it.

The American Civil Liberties Union supports the use of body cameras - with a caveat. Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the ACLU of Southern California, says there are "serious privacy concerns" - including who will have access to the video. Bibring says tapes should be securely stored, not distributed outside the department, and only those officers investigating specific complaints should have access to the video. He says civilians caught on tape should have the right to access their own video and he supports their use in court by either the prosecutor or the defense.

The video cameras can pose a whole new type of invasion of privacy, Bibring points out. "There's a big difference between snapping a mugshot and a police officer who enters somebody's home in the middle of the night, to execute a search or arrest warrant, videotaping the process of pulling a family out of their beds."

Hanni Fakuory, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, agrees that video could be used in court - but not to give prosecutors license to go fishing for crimes. Fakuory is also "very worried" if information on the videos is being shared with federal law enforcement agencies involved in intelligence gathering.

So far, there's no comment from the Department of Justice on the call for a nationwide implementation of the tiny cameras.