LA Is Adopting Bodycams For Its Police Force. But Who Gets to See the Footage?

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Los Angeles is gearing up to equip its entire police force with body cameras, but Chief Charlie Beck says he doesn’t plan to routinely release bodycam footage to the public. “I don’t think that transparency means we post every interaction on YouTube,” he said yesterday. Plus this:

The chief said he felt there was a “moral prohibition” as well.

“People invite us into their homes on their worst possible day, and I don’t think they invite us with the intention of having that interaction made public,” he said. “Families call us when they’re in crisis. Victims call us when they’ve had horrific things done to them by evil people. And to make those things public revictimizes them, doesn’t serve justice. And I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”

This may be self-serving on Beck’s part, but the truth is that he has a point. And the ACLU agrees:

The Southern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated support for the cameras but is demanding strong policies to protect civilian privacy. The organization wrote to the Police Commission, recommending it make public video of high-profile incidents, such as police shootings, “if not while an investigation is pending, then as soon as it is concluded.”

I’m still struggling with the right answer to this, and I think it’s going to be a while before we figure out the right balance. In the meantime, as I continue to noodle over what rules should govern release of bodycam footage, I’ll toss out a few thoughts:

  • The police department itself should not be allowed to decide what footage to make public.
  • In fact, the police department probably shouldn’t even be involved in these decisions.
  • However, civilians caught in police videos should have some say. If they don’t want footage of their encounter made public, that should be given some weight.
  • But how much weight? In the case of, say, a routine domestic dispute, I’d give it a lot of weight. But in a matter of serious public interest—especially those involving allegations of police misconduct—civilian desires for privacy will have to take a back seat.
  • There should be different guidelines for footage taken in public places vs. footage from people’s homes.
  • We also need rules that govern generic research requests. It’s in the public interest, for example, to know whether traffic stops of white drivers seem more motivated by probable cause than stops of black drivers. A review of bodycam footage could provide valuable evidence on that score. But what are the regulations governing this?

The fundamental question underlying all of this, of course, is: Who decides? Not the police themselves. Maybe judges? An independent agency? But if it’s an agency, how do you prevent it from becoming captured by the police department? These are really knotty issues, and I wouldn’t be surprised if several of them end up in front of the Supreme Court over the next few years.

At yesterday’s meeting, Police Commission President Steve Soboroff said “This is not for YouTube. This is not for TMZ. This is for maintaining the city’s safety.” Maybe so. But what it’s for doesn’t matter. Once this stuff is public, it will end up on TMZ and YouTube whether anyone likes it or not.

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SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

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