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LA Police Commission grills LAPD over officers who tampered with patrol car cameras

An LAPD patrol vehicle.
Steve Lyon
An LAPD patrol vehicle.

Los Angeles Police Commissioners told high-ranking LAPD commanders Tuesday that officers tampering with in-car video cameras is a larger problem for the department as it expands the use of recording devices.

Commissioner Kathleen Kim was especially troubled by the lack of accountability.

“The inability to investigate is probably as troubling as the incident itself,” Kim said. “Because the ability to investigate serves as a deterrent for these kinds of things happening in the future.”

At least one frequent critic of the LAPD spoke at the meeting and criticized how Chief Charlie Beck handled the situation.

“Why wasn’t this thing first investigated before the body cameras went on?" said Hamid Khan, of the citizen group Stop LAPD Spying. “So we’re adding additional equipment to monitor people while the equipment we have is being sabotaged.”

The LAPD is in the middle of a pilot program to test on-body cameras for patrol officers and intends to roll them out to the rest of the department at the end of the testing period. It is also looking at adding more cameras on patrol cars.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that an LAPD inspection found officers in the South Bureau tampered with voice recording equipment inside patrol cars last summer, hindering the quality of some recordings or disabling the system.

Most of the tampering happened at LAPD’s Southeast Division, which patrols Watts, Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts. These are neighborhoods the police department has struggled with in years past to build trust between the patrol officers and residents.

An investigation into the missing antennas didn’t lead to any disciplinary action against individual officers or supervisors. LAPD commanders told the police commission Tuesday it would be difficult  to single out misconduct among the 1,500 officers at the South Bureau. That's because officers on different shifts share patrol cars and they are often transferred in and out of the bureau.

“For me personally I didn’t see the potential for an outcome of holding anybody accountable,” said deputy chief Robert Green, in charge of LAPD’s South Bureau.

Green said he put all his officers on notice: “to make sure that they understood the importance of digital in-car video, the importance of the perception of missing antennas and the fact that if an antenna or a part of the system was tampered with, it was considered very, very serious misconduct.”

With president Steve Soboroff absent Tuesday, police commissioners Paula Madison, Robert Saltzman and Kim took turns questioning three high-ranking LAPD officials, including Chief Beck. They asked why individuals were not held accountable for the tampering and why the department didn’t notify the police commission sooner of the problem.

Deputy Chief Stephen Jacobs took responsibility for not notifying the L.A. Police Commission’s inspector general of the problem, calling it as an oversight and not an intentional act.

“The simple answer is this: If the commission believes that it was not notified correctly, then the commission is right,” Beck said.

In-car video cameras were first introduced about four years ago at South Bureau patrol stations. The technology is supposed to capture the activity of officers and the public. The video systems were touted as a way for the LAPD to monitor its officers and help bring an end to federal monitoring of the department through the consent decree.

Related: UPDATE: Last of LAPD consent decree officially dismissed

On Tuesday, Saltzman stressed the importance cameras play in providing transparency and building trust in the communities the LAPD polices.

“The consent decree set a high bar that you met,” Saltzman said. “But that bar is still there – that you maintain your commitment to meeting the requirements of the consent decree under the supervision of the commission."

Since September, new checks have been put in place for inspections of antennas at the start and end of each officer’s shift. It’s now required that field officers notify supervisors when antennas are broken or missing and that they be replaced as soon as possible.

Green said he speculates that the in-custody death of Alesia Thomas last summer – which was caught on a Southeast patrol car camera – could have had an impact on officers assigned to the station. Criminal charges were filed against an LAPD officer in that case.

Commissioner Madison said moving forward she wants to know more about what is going on at the Southeast patrol station, since most of the tampering was concentrated in that area.

Beck said after the meeting he still intends on expanding the use of in-car cameras to the LAPD's Central Bureau and will continue introducing on-body cameras.

“It would be naïve to say that the entire department relishes being on video for most of their shift, but that is a reality,” he said. “This is the future of your profession. This is not going to change.”