Crime & Justice

LAPD finds that patrol car dash cameras are no panacea

LAPD Officers William Allen, left, and Guillermo Espinoza get into their patrol car after doing a foot patrol in Skid Row.
LAPD Officers William Allen, left, and Guillermo Espinoza get into their patrol car after doing a foot patrol in Skid Row.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Listen to story

Download this story 2MB

The national call for more cameras to record police interactions with the public has grown since a Ferguson, Missouri officer fatally shot an unarmed man in August. But the Los Angeles Police Department's struggle to implement patrol car dash cameras shows that such devices have their limitations.

The LAPD has already installed patrol car cameras in the South Bureau and is now deploying them in Central Bureau.  They also plan to deploy body cameras on patrol officers in the New Year.

It’s been a learning process for the LAPD.

“It was a change in culture. It was a big change in the organization,” said Commander William Scott, assistant commanding officer of South Bureau.     

In April, the LAPD inspector general found officers in the Southeast division had removed antennas from the dash cam video systems, ruining the quality of the audio recorded.

A more recent review of dash cam video by the Inspector General’s office found Southeast officers are consistently recording incidents when they transport arrested suspects to jail or the police station. But the review showed in 28 percent of those transports, officers didn’t inspect the dash cam video system to make sure the antennas were in working condition.

Criminal defense attorney Art Corona said it should be as important as checking whether their guns are loaded and if they have ammunition. 

“The use of video equipment is absolutely necessary,” he said.

Corona said his experience with clients arrested by the California Highway Patrol has shown that the usefulness of that video is often limited.  The dash cameras are typically stationary and focused in one direction. In traffic or pedestrian stops, once the officer moves the suspect out of view of the camera, the video becomes useless at documenting the arrest.

“It relies on the officer conducting his investigation in front of the camera,” Corona said.

The L.A. Inspector General and the Police Commission are currently reviewing dash cam videos recorded in the South Bureau to look for problems and find ways to boost their effectiveness.  

One of the issues the oversight group is examining is how officers park their patrol vehicles during pedestrian stops. Sometimes they pull up parallel to a person or drive past them.

Commander Scott acknowledged dash cam video won’t capture every part of officers’ interactions with the public. Officers are tactically trained to park patrol cars in certain ways.

“The camera angle is not going to be your first concern,” said Scott. “We don’t want anybody, either citizens or officers, getting hurt because they’re worried about the position of the camera.”

Though dash cams have their limitations, Police Commissioner Paula Madison said they are still a worthy police and public accountability tool.  

“We’re dealing with credibility on both sides and we’re taking about a community where we’re trying to build a great trust,” Madison said.

“Do I think these can help? I do,” she said.

The Inspector General's report is expected in January.