LAPD Video Policy | What Is the Public Interest?

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes police body cameras in Los Angeles (!).

To its credit ACLU of Southern California is weighing the issues carefully here. It acknowledges body cameras can promote fairness in encounters between the police and the public.

ACLU Opposes Policy Cameras for Two Reasons.

But ACLU concludes that on balance body cameras would do more harm than good under proposed LAPD policy. ACLU cites two reasons. 

One, LAPD will not release videos to the public. 

Two, a police officer will be permitted to review videos before he or she makes a statement (in a report or in an internal affairs investigation) following an incident such as a shooting. ACLU says this review will taint the officer’s memory. 

Would Body Cameras Really Do More Harm than Good?

ACLU’s position is all or nothing. Either Los Angeles gets all of what ACLU thinks is best, or it gets nothing. To me the position feels more like a stance in a political negotiation than a balanced assessment of the public interest.

Impact of Video Is More than What Is Displayed to the Public. 

ACLU argues that policy must “alter Chief Charlie Beck’s stated position that the department will not release body camera footage to the public, even in critical incidents like shootings.” In ACLU’s judgment, the Chief’s position will “[fuel] suspicion that cameras are being used solely to benefit officers.”

And I agree, we can logically anticipate that the department will in practice use videos to tell the stories the department wants to tell. Yes, police departments do engage in PR spinmanship.

However, the value of video involves far more than what is released or told to the public. The sheer creation and preservation of video are themselves transformational. 

LAPD policy to withhold video does not mean video will be destroyed. It does not mean video will be unavailable for legal proceedings such as a civil lawsuit, a criminal trial, an internal investigation or a civilian oversight proceeding. The video will still exist as objective evidence of what happened.

Is Officer Memory Really That Precious?

ACLU’s position assigns very high value to the pristine memory of a police officer.  

I agree that memory can be influenced by video. If an officer reviews video he or she might formulate a narrative (a “memory”) after the fact to explain an event consistent with the video. In ACLU’s view this potential injustice is so great that it outweighs the value of the video itself.

But wait. Will the injustice really outweigh the value of the video? Human memory is notoriously bad. How can it be that the preservation of an officer’s (fallible) memory is so important that it must preclude the very creation of video?

Under proposed LAPD policy an officer would not be able to fabricate, destroy or tamper with video. Even if an officer cooked-up a story to fit the video, the video still stands as an independent record of events.  No amount of lying by an officer can change the innumerable hard facts recorded by the video … the sounds, the words, the sequence of events, the relative positions of people and so on.

But ACLU’s position is this: If given a choice between un-tainted police memory on the one hand and video on the other hand, then we must have the memory and we must not have the video.

Implementation Would Do More Good than Harm.

I respectfully disagree with the ACLU’s judgment on this position. 

Implementation of body cameras under LAPD’s proposed policy would do more good than harm.

With that said, I do agree with ACLU that police departments can and should find responsible ways to release video to the public.

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