The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was one of the first agencies in America to try out body cameras–and will be one of the last to adopt them. And not for good reasons.
Now, the Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday on–by our count–the fourth study (possibly the fifth?) on how LASD should implement in a cam program. This is pretty dysfunctional stuff, even by the County’s standards.
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Agencies began snatching up the cameras four years ago in a mad dash to avoid being the next Ferguson. Many brands tried to capitalize on the gold rush: Vievu, Safariland, Wolfcom and, of course, Taser–which has since rebranded as Axon, bought Vievu, and seen its stock price soar from $8 or so pre-Ferguson to nearly $70 today.
The cameras, which were initially demanded by African American activists, liberal groups and the media and viewed warily by officers have now become popular with officers and deputies, with many buying their own. Meanwhile, the Movement for Black Lives (a policy-recommending group affiliated with Black Lives Matter) has called for the elimination of body cams, as part of what it views as a war on black people.
The great activist, liberal and media hope was that body cams would reveal all kinds of police misconduct and send officers to jail. Of course, they’ve mostly just vindicated officers falsely accused of misconduct, shown officers putting their lives on the line to save strangers, and revealing how little time officers have to make impossibly hard decisions.
While many agencies nationwide hopped aboard the body cam bandwagon, Sheriff Jim McDonnell waited–and wisely, we think. There were still many different brands, the technology was rapidly evolving, and there were real unknowns about performance, policies, and long-term costs. Given LASD’s size, it was smart to make a deliberate choice–and, since the cams were a political demand, understandable he dragged his feet to get the Board of Supervisors to pay for them.
But that was almost four years ago.
Of course, McDonnell also wanted to use the body cams as a Trojan Horse for hiring nearly 240 new administrative people (plus another 60 at the DA and Public Defender’s offices). That’s two entire patrol stations…just in admin. Will body cams require people to process public record requests? Pull videos, blur faces, legal stuff and subpoenas? Sure. But 240? Ridiculous.
While the sheriff and Board of Supervisors have been playing hot-potato on the cameras for years, many deputies have gone out and bought their own cams, despite uncertainty re how the Department will view their recordings or whether opportunistic/low-integrity managers will punish them for infractions on the recordings the Department never would have known about without high-integrity deputies recording themselves. What a sorry state of affairs…
Now, LASD and the Board of Supervisors is calling for YET ANOTHER study (at taxpayer expense) on how to implement body cams. This after the department’s own 2014 test, a report issued by the Office of the Inspector General in 2015, a report issued by the Citizens Oversight Committee just last month, and the experience of many large agencies nationwide…
As Celeste Fremon writes on her Southern California criminal justice blog Witness LA today, yet another study isn’t needed. Her article is great and you should check it out.
How’s all this gonna end?
- Someone’s gonna go to Taser (Axon) and buy like 4,000-5,000 body cams.
- The cams will get delivered, sit in a warehouse for a while, and it’ll take months (maybe years) to for people to get off their asses and issue them, set up the necessary docks and chargers and wifi hotspots, etc, etc, etc. (Of course, it could all get done in like a week, but that ain’t the County Way–not when making it all happen can justify entire jobs and enough overtime for a thousand trips to the river!)
- The department will implement policies, and require people to attend training, on how to use the cams, and acknowledge how they’ll be punished if they forget to turn them on under stress, etc.
- The cams will record tons of HD-quality data, which Axon will store in Amazon Web Solutions’ cloud, and the county will pay tens of millions of dollars per year for it. Many recordings (such as with uses of force) will be kept forever.
- From an evidentiary and PR perspective, sometimes the cameras will be helpful, sometimes they won’t.
That’s what’s going to happen. So we might as well get on with it.
What we’re really looking forward to is the sheriff and brass having to wear the cams, in all their closed-door meetings, where they talk about things deputies and the public didn’t until now have the ability to know. You know, for transparency, right?