Crime & Justice

LAPD will make body camera videos public under new policy

A Los Angeles police officer wears an AXON body camera on February 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
A Los Angeles police officer wears an AXON body camera on February 18, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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In an historic decision, the Los Angeles Police Commission Tuesday voted unanimously to direct the LAPD to release all relevant video of officer involved shootings from body worn, patrol car, bystander and other cameras within 45 days of the shooting.

LAPD officers shot at people 46 times last year — firing their weapons more often than any other police department in the county.

After opposing the release of video when the department began deploying cameras in 2015, Chief Charlie Beck and leaders of the union that represents rank and file officers expressed support for the decision.

The new policy also requires the release of video any time an officer uses force that results in a suspect going to the hospital. In addition, it allows the chief and commission to decide to release video of other high profile incidents.

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"This is information the public should have, should see," Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith said Tuesday.

The LAPD would become the largest department in the nation to release such video.

Commission Vice President Matthew Johnson spearheaded the effort, starting with a public survey last year than showed overwhelming public support for release of at least some footage.

“Frankly, there have been many situations in controversial shootings where I felt like if the public could only see this, this would not be controversial,” Johnson said at the time.

“It’s all about public trust,” Johnson said after the meeting. “Without transparency, you can’t have public trust.”

Now, the public will see often graphic shooting videos from body-worn cameras that sit on the chest of 7,000 officers working the streets — about 35 shootings and other high-profile incidents a year, according to Police Commission Executive Director Richard Tefank.

After the commission vote on Tuesday, Beck held a news conference to talk about the policy, which he was quick to note is "not set in stone." Beck warned the video has its limits.

“These videos are taken at chest point-of-view – often obscured by the officer’s hands or the steering wheel or their close proximity to the suspect involved,” he said.

Beck said he nonetheless hoped the videos would give the public an appreciation for the job his officers have.

“This is a very, very difficult, very dynamic and very dangerous profession," he said.

The department can delay the release of video if doing so would endanger officers or witness – or if it harms the investigation. Beck predicted those cases would be rare.

He noted he would have withheld video of the 2015 shooting of a homeless black man in Venice because he asked prosecutors to file criminal charges against the officer. In that case, he said video might have corrupted any criminal case. In the end, District Attorney Jackie Lacey decided the officer acted legally.

LAPD Sgt. Fabian Ospina stands next to the docking stations where Central Division officers upload hours of video from body worn cameras daily.
LAPD Sgt. Fabian Ospina stands next to the docking stations where Central Division officers upload hours of video from body worn cameras daily.
Frank Stoltze/KPCC

Some police watchdogs were skeptical the new policy would reduce shootings at the LAPD.

“This is a tool that is not going to reduce the murders by police,” said Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition.

An attorney representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California expressed appreciation for the new policy, saying it “can be a step toward greater transparency.”

“However, the commission’s work is not done,” said ACLU Attorney Melanie Ochoa, who criticized the commission for allowing the LAPD to withhold some video of in-custody deaths in city jails and elsewhere.

“Allowing them to withhold video in cases where the department finds no misconduct creates suspicion and serves no purpose,” Ochoa said.

Law enforcement and police watchdogs alike are closely watching the decision and its consequences.

"All eyes are on Los Angeles," said Goldsmith.

Police unions representing the rank and file once opposed the use of cameras and often are still reluctant to make video public. But their attitudes have changed, said Christine Gardiner of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Public Policy, who has studied the use of body cameras.

"When body cameras first came out, it seemed like it would bring accountability on the police – and from the community, that remains the perspective," she said. "But by and large police officers see them as often exonerating them when they're accused of something."

The Policing Project at New York University’s School of Law conducted a public survey and found overwhelming support for the release of video.

Two-thirds of respondents said video "definitely" should be released at some point. Another 21 percent said video should "probably" be released.

LAPD officers were surveyed too: Thirty-one percent said "definitely" and 32 percent said "probably." Chief Beck had earlier said officers have gotten more accustomed to body cameras, and the discussion around them has evolved – and that he now supports the release of some video.

Goldsmith – who as a commissioner sees videos now – warns they can be graphic and hard to figure out. You may only see one angle and won’t know what’s going through everybody’s mind. 

"It’s not like watching an episode of 'Law and Order,'" she said.

But she hopes releasing them – along with other evidence to provide the context of the shooting – will help people on all sides of the issue better understand what happened.

The videos would not be released on their own, according to LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein. The department will offer other evidence of what happened.

"It will be a story. There will be context," he said. "It won’t be telling people to just go to the website and here’s the video."

This story has been updated.