Many police departments around the country have been using body-mounted cameras to record their interactions with the community, and with a new push from the City Council and Police Commission, the Los Angeles Police Department may soon be testing the technology aimed at reducing the number of officer-involved complaints and lawsuits.
The idea for the small body-mounted cameras was thrust to the forefront last week when Police Commissioner Steve Soboroff announced he was raising private funding pay for the items, and City Councilman Mitch Englander said the first cameras for testing might be available as early as next week.
“What we’re looking at is an enhancement to the technology that is already out there with the dash cameras in the black-and-whites,” Englander said in an interview. “More is better in this case. We’re paying out tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits, and these cameras have been shown to lower that amount in other departments. There’s a new energy around this technology, and we want to move forward with it.”
One recent study in Rialto showed an 80 percent drop in the number of complaints against officers during a year-long pilot program, as well as a reduction in use-of-force incidents from 60 to just 25 year over year.
Two weeks ago, Soboroff had said the goal was to have cameras on all officers within the next 18 months, but last week he revised that time frame to one year.
“A couple of things went into that,” Soboroff said in an interview. “(Police Chief Charlie Beck) thinks the results will be so apparent once these things are up and running that the testing period doesn’t need to be that long. We thought it would take six months after we got them to test them — now it’s at three months.”
While he cautioned that the department still has to establish procedures for use of the cameras, including what divisions will test the technology and standards for privacy concerns when officers enter residences, he said the goal is still to move quickly on implementation.
The current plan is to acquire 25 cameras on loan from a manufacturer. Those will be worn in the field for 90 days, and then the department will report back to the City Council’s Public Safety Commission. By then, Soboroff hopes to have raised the money necessary to purchase the hardware, warranties and cloud storage space for the massive amount of data the cameras record.
Funding has consistently been a hang-up in adding the once much touted dashboard cameras to patrol cars, and a similar challenge faces body-camera proposals, even though Chief Beck has voiced his enthusiastic support for both.
Currently, about a fifth of the fleet’s vehicle have in-car cameras, but Beck said last week the department is moving forward with plans for more, on a separate track from the push for body cameras.
To sidestep money concerns over body cameras, Soboroff has taken his pitch private, securing pledges from some high-profile Angelenos, including $250,000 from media mogul Casey Wasserman and an undisclosed amount from DreamWorks co-founder and CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.
“The goal is for the city to have no financial impact at all,” Soboroff said. “That includes warranties, maintenance, downloading and (data) storage … I have people calling me every day.”
The total cost to acquire 500 of the cameras Englander and Soboroff have been eyeing is about $1 million, including warranties that cover upgrades as technology advances, several years of data storage and monitoring and maintenance. Because those 500 will rotate among officers at shift changes, up to 1,500 officers will be able to use them.
The eventual goal is to equip all on-shift officers with the devices. Englander points out that many have already outfitted themselves with cameras or other recording devices at their own expense.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents the majority of sworn officers, has not yet taken a position on the cameras.
The most popular manufacturer is an Arizona-headquartered company, Taser International Inc., which supplied the LAPD with its brand of stun guns and is providing the cameras for the initial testing period.
The company makes two versions of the cameras: the Axon Body, a rectangular device that mounts to an officer’s shirt pocket and costs about $299; and the Axon Flex, which runs between $700 and $800 and can be mounted on hats, collars, belts or specially designed Oakley sunglasses using a magnetic attachment, as well as on the dashboard of a patrol car to act as a dash cam.
Currently, dozens of U.S. police departments have incorporated the cameras — including Greensboro, N.C., Topeka, Kansas, and Houston — and have made public their drop in complaints against officers.
“Last month, there was an officer-involved shooting in Topeka, and the District Attorney and the police chief were able to watch the video of the incident at the same time,” said Steve Tuttle, a spokesman for Taser International. “Now, I don’t know the outcome of the case, but I know that they’ve tripled their purchase (of cameras) since that time. There’s a reason for that.”
Tuttle points out that the Axon Flex can be used as a replacement for dash cams with a mount similar to a GPS stand that affixes to the dashboard of a vehicle. In the case of motorcycle officers, the on-body camera becomes the default dash cam and records both audio and video.
“We’ve had officers out there going 100 mph, and the camera stays affixed,” he said.
Once the camera is turned on, it is always recording video but captures audio only when a police officer turns on that feature.
Despite the manufacturer’s indication that body cams are able to supplant dash cams, locals involved say they want to move forward with adding both to the LAPD’s equipment arsenal.
“There are so many benefits to having these,” said Councilman Englander. “You can bluetooth link the body cameras to your smart phone, which would allow officers to roll up to a scene with an operational perspective. They can use it when they are going around a corner or up into an attic. Instead of putting their head up in the attic and getting it shot at, they can put the camera up there. But we still want the perspective of both the officer and the suspect when you’re in the car. You want to have as many perspectives as possible, and this technology makes that possible.”