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30 LAPD officers begin testing body cameras on patrol

LAPD Sgt. Dan Gomez demonstrates how the one of two body cameras that the department is testing works.

Thirty Los Angeles Police Department officers in the downtown area began testing body cameras Wednesday. It is the start of a larger effort to equip as many as 600 police officers with the equipment.

The majority of officers who volunteered to participate work foot patrol at LAPD’s central police station on East 6th Street. Two types of cameras are being tested: one that’s worn on the lapel and another that’s worn on the chest. They are made by two different manufacturers and each will be worn for 90 days.

Sgt. Dan Gomez said officers have been directed to record interactions during every contact with pedestrians, traffic stops and any call they are dispatched to. An officer must push a button on the camera to start and stop the recording.

“It’s not designed to continually record; that’s not the purpose of it,” Sgt. Gomez said. “It’s an off-and-on system. But certainly it will record for a good six hours of continual video if need be.”

The camera will capture the first 30 seconds prior to the officer pushing the record button.

There isn’t a specific departmental policy that requires a police officer to inform someone that they are recording the interaction. That could be decided after the testing period is over. For now, each officer can decide whether to inform the person that the camera is rolling or not.

Officer Cesar Mendoza said he would inform the public.

“Maybe the person has ulterior motives,” Mendoza said. “And if I can let them know: ‘Hey everything you are doing right now is being recorded,’ hopefully it will diffuse the situation.”

Police department officials said they intend to post an online survey for the public to give feedback on the body cameras and comments about privacy issues.

A working-group will convene in a few weeks to draft a policy on how the cameras will be used. That group would include the L.A. Police Commission and its inspector general, the police union, and the American Civil Liberties Union, plus other stakeholders, officials said.

L.A. Police Commissioner Soboroff privately raised $1.2 million from about two dozen donors to cover costs for equipment, maintenance and software for about 600 cameras. But the department is waiting till after the test period to decide which camera model to buy.

“To put the money together is really outstanding,” said LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. “I think it shows how much Los Angeles values quality policing.”

Police and city officials said they believe the cameras can help detectives with investigations by proving whether an officer did something wrong or not.

“It’s going to come back to us in savings to the taxpayers,” said L.A. City Council Member Mitch Englander. “We pay out millions of dollars in lawsuits – right or wrong when an officer did something in policy or out of policy – a lot of times juries award it either way.”

Some smaller police departments in California have tested similar equipment. Englander believes LAPD is the first large metropolitan police department to use on-body cameras. The Rialto Police Department tested  body cameras for 12 months last year.

The body cameras are meant to complement in-car-cameras mounted inside about a quarter of the department’s 1,350 patrol cars. The city has been trying to expand the use of that recording equipment to the rest of its patrol fleet for several years, but it’s been expensive, Englander said.

Poll: Will body cameras help or hinder?