The utility of the Los Angeles Police Department’s in-car video recorders is being called into question after a report from the department's civilian watchdog has found that supervisors rarely check the footage to monitor police misconduct.
According to the Los Angeles Times, which received an advance copy of the report (it will be released to the public on Tuesday), police generally check the videos only when looking into "critical incidents" such as shootings, pursuits, or in reference to a specific officer complaint.
Doing otherwise would be “too time-consuming and labor intensive,” says the report.
That assessment might make sense, if not for the fact that there is a widespread issue with how the technology is used and monitored across the nation. In this case, the report found that in "a small number of cases," the officer's microphones "did not appear to be recording any audio." Inspector General Alex Bustamante has said that he has recommended that the LAPD investigate the instances "to ensure that they are not the result of officers' use of the system."
Last August, the Times found that many officers regularly tampered with audio recording equipment while on duty. It took months for chief Charlie Beck to disclose the issue to the police commission, causing a scandal when it was first made public.
"On an issue like this, we need to be brought in right away," Los Angeles police commission President Steve Soboroff said at the time. "This equipment is for the protection of the public and of the officers. To have people who don't like the rules to take it upon themselves to do something like this is very troubling."
Another issue brought forth by the report is that the department has ambiguous policies on when cameras should be turned on. Current policy requires officers to turn on the cameras "during the initiation" of all vehicle stops, suspect transports, or any response that requires turning on the lights and sirens. The cameras automatically turn on whenever the officer activates a cruiser's emergency lights.
But when officers make pedestrian stops, the policy only states that officers turn on the cameras "when practicable."
The LAPD is currently taking steps to suit every officer with body cameras, and the dashcam report comes “in light of the pending implementation,” said investigator Bustamante.
In the future, he said, his office will conduct “regular and substantive reviews” of the dashcam technology.
The spread of dashcam and body cam technology has influenced a national debate about police tactics and conduct. In a controversial 2014 incident that was brought to light last month, several St. Louis police officers are seen are seen using force on a driver, before one of the cops tells fellow officers to "hold up," while she turns off the dashboard camera. The driver has an ongoing lawsuit with the police department, for a claim of excessive force.
In Detroit, protests were sparked last week after a dash cam video captured police brutally beating Floyd Dent, a 57-year old Ford employee, during a routine traffic stop. Though six officers were the scene, not one of their microphones was turned on, making it difficult to verify the official account, which alleged Dent had threatened to kill officers before the beating occurred.
The lack of audio evidence led to a court dismissing Dent's charges of fleeing and resisting arrest.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.