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LA police commission reviews body-cam policy. Other cities' rules vary, KPCC finds.

LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza wears a video camera on his lapel. Espinoza is one of 30 officers in the downtown area that began testing body cameras this month.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
LAPD Officer Guillermo Espinoza wearing a video camera on his lapel in 2014, during a test of the cameras.

The civilian body that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department this week announced it plans to roll back the department’s prohibition on the release of body worn camera video, a move police reform activists have been lobbying for ever since officers started wearing cameras last year.

The cameras record video of police interactions with the public, and have been adopted by an increasing number of Southern California departments in recent years. If the LAPD clarifies its policies on public release, that will make it the rare law enforcement agency in the county that provides specifics on if and when video will be released.

“We on the commission, and I in particular, see body worn camera video as vital to building public trust,” said Shane Murphy-Goldsmith, one of five members of the Los Angeles Police Commission. “It will add more transparency.”

The commission plans to work with the Policing Project of New York University School of Law to collect opinions and recommendations from the public, police officers and other interested parties on releasing not just video from body worn cameras but also cameras mounted on the dash of patrol cars and private security cameras collected during investigations.

The project is expected to make recommendations to the panel later this year on what types of video should be seen by the public and when to release it. One question is whether the LAPD will release video of high profile shootings, which often end up being used in lawsuits. 

The department plans to place cameras on 7,000 patrol officers and other cops who regularly interact with the public by early next year. So far, around 2,000 have been deployed.

Chief Charlie Beck and the police union lobbied for the ban, arguing releasing video could violate the privacy of officers and residents. They also argued that video only shows part of an incident and that it could prejudice any investigation.

But Beck reserved the right to release camera video to calm protests over controversial incidents, like a shooting last year when surveillance cameras showed the victim holding a gun.

Around the county, body cam policies lack specifics

The vast majority of body camera policies are vague, not specifying if and when police will release body camera video. Through public records requests, KPCC obtained written policies for 14 law enforcement agencies in L.A. County that have body camera programs.

Two of the largest police departments in the county — Los Angeles and Long Beach — don't address the public release of video at all in their current policies.

Among existing policies, few specify when departments will release body camera video:

  • Los Angeles, Long Beach and Downey police don't address releasing video in their written policies. That leaves the public in the dark as to when, if ever, these agencies would share video of critical incidents.
  • Nine departments cite public records law and other statutes in their body-worn camera policy. But they do so without pledging to release video whenever possible or listing specific exemptions.
  • In Pasadena, a recently updated policy promises to release video to the public "to the greatest extent possible," but specifies cases when it won't release video (see below for more details).
  • South Pasadena's policy states that video will only be released under court order, or if the Chief of Police decides to release it.

Many cities have argued that body camera programs can help improve community relations. But critics say vague or non-existent video release policies can actually have the opposite effect.

"In order to actually advance public trust and public accountability, the public needs to have some expectation of when a department is going to release body camera video," said Catherine Wagner, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California who has tracked body camera programs.

Other California police departments — in Fresno, Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco — have clearer guidelines favoring public release, Wagner said.

Any change in LAPD policy could reverberate nationally. "Movement from them on this issue would be a powerful signal," Wagner said.

More than 30 agencies in Los Angeles County told KPCC they don't currently have a body-camera program, but several are testing equipment or are in the process of starting one.

Disagreement on when to release video

Body-worn cameras are still in a period of growing pains, and the public release of video has emerged as a flashpoint.

Keeping body camera video out of public view is perfectly fine with some in law enforcement.

"You're going to open up Pandora's box," said Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League union, and a 36-year veteran of the LAPD. He argues that once a department releases any video it will open the floodgates to releasing all footage.

Lally also argues that the video only captures one angle of an incident, leaving out important context. "It's only a snippet in time," he said. Lally doesn't trust the media to accurately portray ugly incidents, like questionable shootings.

He opposed any shift toward the public release of video by the LAPD, and doesn't support the new policy in Pasadena.

Walter Katz, who serves as the city of San Jose's independent police auditor and was previously a member of the Los Angeles Office of Inspector General, called Pasadena's changes a "positive first step."

Katz said that about two years ago, during the first wave of body camera adoption, many departments focused narrowly on when officers should turn on their cameras as they decided what to include in their written policies.

Agencies also took a cautious approach, Katz said, waiting for the state to issue guidelines to help them sort through a tangle of California laws on evidence, police personnel files and public records.

That hasn't happened. While state lawmakers have introduced several bills that would regulate body cameras, none have passed.

"Body camera policy is still developing, and I think it's going to take a couple of years before the dust settles," Katz said.

Pasadena's decision to update its policy came amid criticism of its previous guidelines, including from the local branch of the NAACP. Advocates say they hope Pasadena's move will push agencies to rewrite their own policies on releasing body camera video and become more transparent. It appears the LAPD could be next if the Police Commission follows through on the plans announced this week.

But even with a more detailed policy, Pasadena may have a large loophole. The policy states that video won't be released if disclosure "involves other mitigating circumstances such as potential civil litigation." That leaves room for officials to keep camera video private.

"The very events for which there is the greatest public clamor for disclosure, are those events which will fall under these exceptions," Katz said. Many high-profile incidents, including police shootings and other uses of force, result in civil litigation.

Los Angeles County body-worn camera policies

Agency Pilot program? Policy on public release
Alhambra PD    Public records law/other statutes
Baldwin Park PD    Public records law/other statutes
Beverly Hills PD Yes Public records law/other statutes
Downey PD   No mention
El Segundo PD   Public records law/other statutes
Gardena PD   Public records law/other statutes
Long Beach PD Yes No mention
Los Angeles PD   No mention
Manhattan Beach PD   Public records law/other statutes
Pasadena PD   Favors release, with exemptions
Redondo Beach PD   Public records law/other statutes
Santa Monica PD Yes Public records law/other statutes
Signal Hill PD   Public records law/other statutes
South Pasadena PD   Chief of police decision or court order