The ACLU says the Justice Department should deny federal funds for the LAPD’s body-camera program because of a policy that allows officials to review and withhold footage.
The ACLU of Southern California wrote an 11-page letter to the Justice Department on Thursday asking it to reject the LAPD’s request to fund the program as part of a $75 million effort by the Obama administration to equip officers with cameras.
Last week, LAPD officers at the Mission Division in the San Fernando Valley hit the streets with 250 chest-mounted cameras donated by the LA Police Foundation. Another 610 will be sent to the station. The city plans to equip all 7,000 LAPD patrol officers with body cameras by the end of 2016 and has applied to the Justice Department for funds.
The cameras recorded 1,000 hours of footage after two days of patrolling, the city said.
On Friday, Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the rollout and plans to expand the program, touting technology that connects the Taser-manufactured cameras to Samsung Galaxy S6 smartphones donated to the LAPD by Sprint.
Video transfer and storage of the 860 Mission Division cameras will hog roughly the same amount of bandwidth on the city’s fiber optic cable as currently used by 40,000 city employees.
“I’m proud that the LAPD continues to lead the nation, creating a model for 21st-century policing,” said Garcetti. “The department is moving to use today’s mobile, sensing, cloud, and Internet technologies to enhance their ability to do their jobs, better protect our city, and strengthen public trust. We’re harnessing the power of technology to better provide one of the most basic city functions: public safety.”
But in its letter, the ACLU says that while it is “generally supportive” of the LAPD camera program it suffers from “serious flaws” because the department reserved the right to keep footage out of the public eye.
“By withholding video from the public, requiring officers to review video before making statements in use-of-force and misconduct investigations, and failing to include protections against the use of body cameras as general surveillance tools, LAPD’s policy provides no transparency and threatens to taint the integrity of investigations and undermine the public trust,” the ACLU’s letter stated.
Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said he was “disappointed” by the ACLU’s decision to write to the Justice Department and said the city plans to review the program in six months.
“To me, this is sour grapes,” Soboroff told the Los Angeles Times. “Cut off our funding? Give me a break. I’m shocked.”
Calls for the new technology grew louder after the police shootings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, and the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Eric Garner in New York.
A YouGov/Economist poll earlier this year found that almost 90 percent of Americans want police to patrol the streets wearing the cameras.
There is nearly universal support for body cameras in California, with five out of six voters approving of them, according to a Tulchin Research poll commissioned by the ACLU.
Seventy-four percent of voters agreed that authorities should release body-camera footage if an officer is suspected of misconduct, and 72 percent of voters agreed that footage should be made public if an officer uses force.
Addressing the violent protests that erupted in Ferguson after the death of Brown, President Barack Obama said that he would provide $75 million in federal funding for body-camera programs across the country.
According to the ACLU, the Justice Department has stated that applicants should ensure their body-camera policies are transparent and allow public access.
“The body-camera program implemented by LAPD’s policy is very different from the kind of program contemplated by the DOJ,” the ACLU’s letter stated. “Nationally, both the White House and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing have cast body-worn cameras as tools for improving transparency, trust, and oversight.
“The policy adopted by LAPD explicitly sets out a very different set of objectives which nowhere mention as goals increasing transparency and public trust.”
ACLU representatives met with police department officials and there was a public meeting on the issue. But the group said in a statement on Thursday that the department’s policy on cameras was made public just two days before the police commission voted to approve it – “allowing no meaningful opportunity for community analysis, criticism, and feedback.”
“Spending millions on a technology because of its promise to build trust between communities and police, but not requiring departments to use them in ways that will actually build trust, would be to squander not only taxpayer money but a valuable opportunity to change the dynamic of policing in America,” the ACLU said in the statement.
The LAPD has already received a $1 million grant from the Justice Department to study the city’s camera program as it is rolled out, according to a news release from Garcetti’s office.
Funded by the department’s research organization the National Institute of Justice, the city will partner with Justice and Security Strategies and experts from UCLA and George Mason University to conduct the study.