Crime & Justice

LA Sheriff's body cam plan would permit release of some video

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After two years of study, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has prepared a proposal to equip nearly 6,000 deputies with body cameras, and to enact a policy that permits the release of at least some video shot by officers.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors needs to approve the plan, which, when fully implemented, would cost $55 million dollars a year.

Sheriff Jim McDonnell's proposal calls for releasing body cam video to the public upon request unless it involves incidents still under investigation or would violate someone’s privacy, according to Dean Gialamas, the department's director of technology services.

McDonnell "wants to be as transparent as possible," Gialamas told KPCC. He added the department may also choose to release video of high-profile incidents before an investigation is completed.

The agency's proposal would put the nation's largest sheriff's department at odds with the LAPD, the third-largest police department in the U.S.

The LAPD doesn’t release any body cam video, although it is reviewing that policy. Chief Charlie Beck did release video once – of a man running with a gun – to calm public anger over reports that the man was unarmed.

"We would be taking an approach very different from most agencies in California," Gialamas said.

Policies vary widely at police departments across California, but many comply with current state law that allows them to classify all video as possible evidence in an investigation and therefore exempt from the 1968 Public Records Act.

Law enforcement agencies are beginning to relax their release policies – in part because the public is demanding it, said Peter Bibring of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

"There is a trend toward release," Bibring said. "We’ve seen departments, for example in Fresno, release video as soon as three weeks after an officer-involved shooting."

Many believe the state legislature eventually will mandate release of at least some video, and the sheriff's department "wants to get out ahead of that," Gialamas said.

It will cost more money to release video because the department will have to hire people to respond to public requests, review the video and make any necessary edits.

"Based on our experiences and research, we expect four hours of review and redaction for every one hour of recorded video," he said. The department estimates it needs to hire 64 civilian employees to handle public requests, including 32 "forensic video specialists" and 32 clerical support positions – although they might have other duties including auditing how the system is working, Gialamas said.

"Admittedly that plan has additional costs that the county and taxpayers will have to bear for that transparency," he added.

In June 2016, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion noting that the department had operated a successful pilot program in 2014 and urging McDonnell to roll out body cams "in an expeditious manner."

Referring to comments by McDonnell that the rollout would take time, the motion stated, "implementation in 2018 is too late."

One of the four types of body cameras tested by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department during its 2014 pilot program.
One of the four types of body cameras tested by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department during its 2014 pilot program.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

Now, facing an unexpected budget shortfall, it’s not clear the supervisors will provide the full $55 million amount the sheriff is seeking. In fact, the board is considering hiring a consultant to determine if it can be done better or cheaper before approving any plan, said Gialamas.

The sheriff’s plan calls for hiring a total of 239 people over four years to manage, review and edit millions of hours of video. The first year would be spent deciding on a body cam vendor and setting up infrastructure, like docking stations where deputies would upload video at the end of their shifts.

The second year would see a rollout of cameras at six sheriff’s stations, with a focus on areas with high rates of crime, arrests and legal claims by residents against the department. At full deployment, 5,895 patrol and other deputies who regularly come in contact with the public would carry cameras.

The sheriff has not yet decided when deputies involved in serious use of force cases, including shootings, would be able to view video of the incident.

In a report issued last year, the county's inspector general said deputies should provide a written account first, then supervisors should look at video of the incident to see if there was any misconduct by the deputy, and finally, if there was no misconduct the deputy could view the video to refresh his or her memory for additions to the report.

The deputies' union argues the department should allow deputies to  view video before writing their reports, as the LAPD does.

"Review of videos by officers has proven valuable in the accurate documentation of criminal activity as well as an enhancement to subsequent testimony and presentation of evidence in court," the Association of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs said in a statement.

"Interactions with the public, particularly stressful situations such as uses of force, are dynamic and deputies are not able to stop and take notes or record information as cameras can," it added.