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Can cops record you without your consent? And other questions from the Watts case

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Public opinion swung wildly last week from skewering the Los Angeles Police Department for alleged racial profiling - to civil rights activists calling on an actress to apologize to the officer. The difference? An audio recording.

Actress Daniele Watts had taken to Facebook to complain that police handcuffed her unnecessarily after "making out" with her boyfriend - simply because they were a multi-racial couple. She said police thought she was a prostitute and her boyfriend a client. Watts is black; her boyfriend is white.


Post by Daniele Watts.
But the officer in question recorded the stop and when those tapes were leaked to TMZ, some started to change their mind. She was yelling at the officer, who stayed calm throughout the exchange.

Since then, the full story has emerged. People in an office building called police on Sept. 11 to report a woman and man having sex in a car outside the CBS Studios. Watts and her boyfriend were near the car and matched the description, according to police. The actress refused to give the officer her ID and walked away. A pair of officers who also responded handcuffed her and brought her back to the scene but she was not arrested and has not been charged with a crime.

“Don’t make us look dumb,” civil right activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson said on Friday and asked Watts to apologize to the police. “Don’t make yourself look stupid because when you do you totally do a disservice what we considers still a compelling, major, deadly issue and that’s racial profiling.”

Curious about what the LAPD manual says about how officers are allowed to use personal recorders?

Here's an FAQ:

Are LAPD officers allowed to use personal audio recording devices?

Yes, but they must file an application to get permission to use a personal tape recorder on the job.

Police officers have been buying recorders to use on the job for decades. The LAPD established its rules for using personal audio recording devices in 1994, according to Lt. Andrew Neiman, a spokesperson for the LAPD.

Cassette tapes served as recording tools back then so the manual language uses the word “tape” (like we radio people do) a lot:

Recording privileges are withdrawn when officers move to an undercover or plainclothes assignment.

What are they allowed to record?

Officers can record in-person interactions with the public. There’s no mandate that they must record if they’re using a personal audio recorder on the job, said Neiman. They get to choose to record or not in every case.

If an officer decides to record, he or she is supposed to hit the record button as soon as possible and leave the tape rolling until the contact or police stop is over.

The LAPD manual says they can turn the recorder off to write a citation or do a warrant check, but should restart it once they return to the scene.

Officers have to follow the law and department policy when it comes to recording phone calls, according to the manual.

Do LAPD officers have to tell you they are recording you?

No. Neiman said officers are not required to tell the person they are being recorded.

“The expectation of privacy in public doesn’t exist,” he said.

However, officers are supposed to identify themselves on the recording and say the date and time, and the names of the people being recorded. This can be done at any time during the recording, even after the police stop is over.

How long do they keep those recordings?

Officers who use a personal audio recorder must keep the tapes for at least two years, according to the manual. They must make their recordings available to the LAPD, criminal investigators, lawyers, and prosecutors if they ask for them.

Any time an officer records an interaction, they have to document it on their daily field reports so supervisors and other staff know they exist.