What it's like for LAPD cops to wear body cams

Officer Dave Bowen, who walks a foot patrol in downtown L.A., is one of more than 4,000 LAPD cops who wear body cams attached to the middle of their shirt.
Officer Dave Bowen, who walks a foot patrol in downtown L.A., is one of more than 4,000 LAPD cops who wear body cams attached to the middle of their shirt.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
Officer Dave Bowen, who walks a foot patrol in downtown L.A., is one of more than 4,000 LAPD cops who wear body cams attached to the middle of their shirt.
LAPD Sgt. Fabian Ospina stands next to the docking stations where Central Division officers each day upload hours of video recorded by their body cameras.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC
Officer Dave Bowen, who walks a foot patrol in downtown L.A., is one of more than 4,000 LAPD cops who wear body cams attached to the middle of their shirt.
LAPD Officer Oscar Orozco, center, and his partner talk to a manager at a rehabilitation center in downtown Los Angeles who reported a man was assaulting people inside. Officers must turn on their cameras whenever they initiate contact with a member of the public.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

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It’s a relatively quiet night in downtown Los Angeles when LAPD Sgt. Fabian Ospina hears a call over the radio. It’s a four-15 – police code for an unknown disturbance.

It turns out a man has just assaulted someone and tried to set a fire in a stairwell at a nearby drug rehabilitation center.

"We’re looking for a male white wearing an orange shirt," he explains.

The sergeant turns on his body camera as he steps out of his patrol car and onto the sidewalk to find his officers. The suspect is long gone, and he turns it off.

Ospina meets up with Officer Oscar Orosco, who activated his camera the moment he first responded about 15 minutes earlier.

"It’s kinda second nature to me," said Orosco, who joined the department two years ago when the LAPD was deploying its first cameras. Orosco, 25, has never known police work without a lens peering from a box the size of a thick wallet sitting squarely between the two pockets on his shirt.

It’s not something I think about twice," he said. "I think it just holds officers accountable."

Orosco is one of about 4,000 LAPD officers now equipped with body worn cameras. By February, the department plans to have outfitted all 7,000 of its front line cops.

Data burst – massive amounts of video

"We look at videos all the time - pretty much on a daily basis," said Captain Scott Harrelson, who commands the LAPD’s busy central division that patrols downtown. Two officers work full time looking at videos involving citizen complaints, car chases, and any use of force from an arm twist to a shooting  – then forward the relevant clips to Harrelson.

Complaints against officers in the central division have fallen by more than 30 percent so far this year compared with the same period last year, said Harrelson. It’s unclear if officers are behaving better because of the cameras and/or people know they can’t get away with bogus claims, the captain said.

In "dozens" of cases, however, video has directly contradicted  a citizen's claim that an officer acted rudely or used excessive force, said Harrelson.

Overall, he likes what he's seeing in the videos that he's reviewing.

"Everything that I believed to be happening before we had the body worn is truly happening," said Harrelson. "The guys are out there and the girls are out there doing what they’re trained to do," he said.

But you’ll have to take his word for it.

The public never sees any of the videos, because when the first body cams were deployed the five-member civilian Police Commission agreed with Chief Charlie Beck and the powerful union that represents rank and file officers that the videos should be considered evidence not subject to public disclosure.

It’s something the commission is reconsidering – amid seething public anger over a series of citizen videos of police shootings in recent years.

"For me it’s a desire to increase transparency and accountability," said Commission member Shane Murphy Goldsmith.

The panel, appointed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, is considering releasing video from high profile incidents, not just from cameras worn by officers but also from dashboard cameras.

The panel has asked the Policing Project at New York University’s law school to conduct public opinion surveys and provide the commissioners with policy recommendations. That report is due out in the next month.

Murphy Goldsmith is well aware of the limitations of video - the police commission reviews all major uses of force, including shootings and anything that sends a suspect to the hospital.

"You will get more of the story," she said. "It’s not going to be the whole story. And I think that’s going to be a challenge."

Fierce debate

While Chief Beck has said he’s open to releasing some videos, police union president Craig Lally remains staunchly opposed.

"There’s going to be such pressure on them once it starts getting released to release everything," says Lally.  "I really have a problem with that."

He worries about situations in which video appears to portray an officer using excessive force but there's other evidence to the contrary that isn't released to the public.

Police unions have successfully lobbied against attempts by state lawmakers to mandate the release of more video.

Watchdogs like the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California have argued that, at the very least, video of all police shootings should be released.

"The power of police officers to shoot people based on their own split-second assessment of danger is one of the most extraordinary powers we give government," said ACLU attorney Peter Bibring. "The public has a right to understand how that power is being used and whether it’s being used improperly."

Entire videos would not have to be released, Bibring added, saying the LAPD could redact images of someone suffering after they’ve been shot.

Law enforcement leaders around the country are closely watching what the LAPD does. That’s because the department – one of the largest and considered one of the best in the U.S. – is a trendsetter.

"They’re the big dog, so to speak," said Philip Kopp, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton.

The camera as "silent witness"

Officer Bowen walks a foot patrol in downtown L.A.'s Little Tokyo district.

The 15-year veteran has worn a camera since they were introduced two years ago.

"It’s a silent witness" that misses a lot, Bowen said of the camera. "So I talk a lot when I activate my body worn camera to give an insight into my state of mind, what I see."

He gives an example of a woman causing a disturbance.

"Let’s say she’s sitting on the curb next to a phone.  The knife is under here." He points under his thigh – a place the camera can’t see. Bowen said he would make sure to say out loud that the woman was armed.

"You want clarity for anyone who watches it," he said.

Bowen, 51, who had a previous career working for Fed Ex, laments the loss of public trust in the badge and the uniform.

"There was an era this was sufficient. It no longer is," he said. "You almost have to provide a rationale for every single thing you do. You have to sell that you’re doing police work and that they should probably do what you’re asking them to do."

But Bowen has come to terms with the fact that along with his badge and handcuffs and gun, he has to put on his body camera when he goes to work every day.