LA Sheriff on body cam video: 'I'm a fan of transparency'

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said Thursday he's "a fan of transparency" in explaining why he plans to permit the release of at least some videos shot by his deputies once they're outfitted with body cameras.

In a conversation with KPCC's AirTalk, McDonnell discussed his proposal to eventually equip nearly 6,000 of his deputies with body cams. He will permit the release of body cam videos unless they involve incidents still under investigation or they would violate someone’s privacy.

McDonnell told KPCC’s AirTalk that more openness would be good for the public, and for his deparment.

"I think it only benefits us to be able to share with the public as to what our deputies are dealing with in the field, the challenges that we’re facing," he said. 

KPCC first reported on McDonnell's proposed video policy on Monday.

The sheriff said a lot of his deputies would welcome the chance to show how they’re performing, because it would help them defend themselves against allegations of wrongdoing.

With regard to whether deputies should be allowed to review body cam video before filing a report, McDonnell said his position is "nuanced." In cases involving a "significant use of force," he said he's "comfortable" having a deputy "give a statement prior to reviewing" the video.

If it's "a routine investigative matter," McDonnell said "I don't think that's a bad thing" to let a deputy review the video first, since "that's like referring to your notes."

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.

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.

The sheriff’s plan calls for deploying the full complement of body cams over a few years. It would cost about $55 million a year. He said much of that would be for extra staff to review and edit videos before they’re released.

"Based on our experiences and research, we expect four hours of review and redaction for every one hour of recorded video," according to Dean Gialamas, director of technology services at the Sheriff's Department.

The department estimates it needs to eventually 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, said Gialamas.

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."

McDonnell said he is still waiting to hear whether the County Board of Supervisors will approve his request. The board is considering hiring a consultant to determine if it can be done better or cheaper before approving any plan,