An Early Test for Body Cameras

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The officer-involved shooting Sunday on skid row that left a man dead could be an early test of the Los Angeles Police Department’s new body camera program for officers. The encounter was recorded by body cameras worn by at least one of the officers involved in the incident. Other videos have emerged showing parts of the incident, but the actual altercation that led to the shooting is not clear.

The department planned in December to outfit every officer with a body camera that will record interactions with the public. The 7,000 cameras will help bring clarity to controversial encounters, guard against officer misconduct and clear cops accused of wrongdoing.

The hope is that the cameras will help with investigations of use-of-force encounters just like Sunday’s. Increasing transparency could improve the public’s trust. But there are many implications that remain unexplored, including the impact on people’s privacy, how the public and defense lawyers can access the footage and how long footage will be kept before it is destroyed.

Police agencies around the country are grappling with similar issues as they try to figure out the best way to implement body cameras. The devices were among a list of recommendations included in a report released Monday by a task force appointed by President Obama to explore ways to improve relationships between police and the public.

Cameras have the long-term potential to help cut down on civilian complaints and lawsuits, speed up criminal cases and reduce paperwork. That is why he sees Sunday’s case an important test of body cameras’ potential to ensure speedy and fair use-of-force investigations.

There is some debate about making the videos that are involved in the altercations public. The department doesn’t intend, in general, to release the recordings unless required by a criminal or civil court proceeding. The LAPD considers the recordings evidence, investigative records exempt from public release under California’s public records law. But at community forums, some residents said they thought videos should be released as a form of transparency.

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