One of the largest law enforcement departments in the United States wants to give body-worn cameras to all of its officers, but the specter of constant surveillance is raising privacy issues for both police and the suspects caught on video.
Led by newly installed President of the Los Angeles Police Commission Steve Soboroff, the Los Angeles Police Department is ramping up a campaign to raise private funds for the new technology. Soboroff already has secured about $500,000 from Hollywood figures like media executive Casey Wasserman and DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, which gets him halfway toward his goal to give cameras to 1,500 LAPD officers, reports the Associated Press. Soboroff hopes to have cameras for all on-shift officers within a year, reports the LA Daily News.
A pilot study conducted on the 66-officer police department in nearby Rialto, Calif., found that complaints against police officers dropped 88 percent and use of force by an officer dropped by almost 60 percent after instituting body-worn cameras, according to The New York Times.
The LAPD, which employs about 10,000 officers, paid out $24,154,957 in settlements related to civil rights violations or traffic accidents in 2011, which means there is a financial incentive -- besides the potential reduction of police brutality or false abuse allegations -- for the cameras to work.
But the effort to reduce abuse could bring up a host of potential privacy violations. Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, points out that the introduction of body-worn cameras needs to come with strong policies that severely restrict access to the footage and protect the privacy of people caught on camera.
"Police officers often interact with people who are in vulnerable states, or not at their best," said Bibring in an interview with The Huffington Post. "The fact that video is being taken for accountability purposes does not mean it should end up on the evening news." As an example, Bibring brought up the dash-cam video taken of movie star Reese Witherspoon's drunken arrest in Atlanta. While it was filmed on the street where Witherspoon had no expectation of privacy, Bibring pointed out that the video was "very embarrassing," and ended up leaking from the police department.
"[These videos] shouldn't be accessible to anyone else in the department," said Bibring. "Not only should they not be shared with the evening news, they shouldn't be emailed around the office."
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union for LAPD officers, emphasized similar concerns about officers' privacy.
"Balancing everyone’s right to privacy with technology that could, in effect, capture every moment of every day, will be our emphasis as we consider and negotiate work rules," said a LAPPL statement released Monday. "Among other issues, recording a very personal moment or a deeply visceral reaction to a violent or tragic crime scene may serve no purpose other than to satisfy morbid curiosity and embarrass someone."
The LAPPL also emphasized that video or images alone are not "complete investigations," and shouldn't be used to encourage a "gotcha" mentality within the department.
When contacted Wednesday by HuffPost, the LAPD had no comment on the privacy issues related to body cameras.
But some police watchdogs believe that donning the uniform means officers should expect extra public scrutiny at all times. Diop Kamau, the founder of an independent police oversight body called PoliceAbuse.com, was a police officer in Hawthorne, Calif., and has strong opinions about the privacy police officers should expect when they sign up for the job.
"What [police] do in public when they're in their uniform is something that they should be comfortable with letting people view at a later date," said Kamau to HuffPost. "It's about openness and accountability."
Kamau also pointed out that because of the widespread use of smartphones, the public is already routinely surveilling the police, whether or not officers realize it. "I think that if any [department] needed cameras, it's the LAPD," he continued. "I would like to see the entire country move in that direction."
The question of public access to footage obtained by police is a murky one. Michael Donaldson, a partner at Beverly Hills law firm Donaldson & Callif specializing in fair use and privacy issues, said he believes body-camera footage is part of the public domain because it probably can't be copyrighted by a police department and it is a public record created by a public employee.
But whether the public should have access to the footage is a different question entirely, he said, and gets at possibly the most important legal issue surrounding the body-camera footage.
"The privacy issues are paramount," said Donaldson to HuffPost. "For instance, if the cops were to break down your door, you'd have a legitimate expectation of privacy in your home. Therefore, that footage would invade your privacy if it were shown outside of strictly, tightly controlled police usage."
"What's new about the technology?" added Donaldson. "It's a small, hidden camera. The [privacy] law is the same." Still, he conceded that without a video from an officer's lapel camera to examine, the issues were all hypothetical and have yet to be tested in court.
Bibring has been vocal about the specific protections needed if body cameras go mainstream. He recommended that video be uploaded securely and that sharing the footage with other departments or agencies be limited. He also suggested a log-in system for the video database, so that officers would have to identify themselves and outline their reasons for accessing past footage.
Bibring warned against what he called "ubiquitous surveillance" -- like officers scanning videos to note who attended a protest.
"People should be aware that they're being recorded, and there's a question of whether they're properly public records," said Bibring. "They shouldn't be publicized with the identity of the individual, but certainly the person being recorded should have access to it."
The LAPD is still in the process of outfitting patrol cars with dashboard cameras, a reform instituted after the 1991 beating of Rodney King by LA officers. So far, a quarter of the department's 1,200 patrol cars have been equipped, notes the AP.
Also on HuffPost:
Oscar Grant BART shooting
Oscar Grant was shot by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer early on New Year's Day 2009 in Oakland, Calif. Cellphone footage shows BART cops struggling with Grant and forcing him to lay facedown on the platform after reports of a fight on the train. Officer Johannes Mehserle was seen shooting Grant in the back once, killing him. He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but acquitted of second degree murder.
Rodney King Beating
In one of the most notorious cases of police brutality, a bystander recorded four Los Angeles Police Department officers beating Rodney King with their batons in 1991 after they pulled him over for driving erratically. When the videotape emerged days later of the attack, the four cops were charged with assault. A jury acquitted them, sparking riots in April 1992 that killed 55 people and led to 12,000 arrests over seven days.
Off-duty Chicago police officer Anthony Abbate was<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/06/23/ex-cop-anthony-abbate-get_n_219651.html" target="_hplink"> sentenced to two years probation</a> and anger management classes after being captured on video beating a female bartender in 2007.
Chicago police officer William Cozzi was sentenced to 40 months in federal prison after he was caught on camera in 2005 handcuffing a man to a wheelchair and beating him in a hospital. Cozzi claimed the victim -- a man who was seeking treatment for stab wounds -- had attacked him.
A New York City police officer was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/15/patrick-pogan-biker-shove_n_646517.html " target="_hplink">acquitted of assault and harassment</a> after being videotaped <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/07/28/critical-mass-bicyclist-a_n_115390.html " target="_hplink">knocking over cyclist Christopher Long</a> during a "Critical Mass" bike ride through Times Square in 2008. Patrick Pogan resigned from the police force and was found guilty of filing false documents after video emerged that contradicted his claim that Long swerved into him.
Ahmed Amadou Diallo
Ahmed Amadou Diallo, 22, seen here in an undated photo, was gunned down at his home in the Bronx borough of New York early Thursday morning, Feb. 4, 1999. Four white police officers from the elite Street Crime Unit fired 41 shots at Diallo, a black West African immigrant who had no police record and was unarmed. Diallo was hit 19 times and died instantly. The officers' lawyer says Diallo gestured with his hands, leading the police to think he was reaching for a gun.
Abner Loiuma became a symbol of unchecked police force after the Haitian immigrant was sodomized with a broomstick by cops in a New York City police station in 1997. The officer responsible for the attack, Justin Volpe, was sentenced to 30 years in prison.
London newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson died after police officer Simon Harwood hit him with a baton and <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/09/british-police-officer-su_n_185251.html " target="_hplink">knocked him to the ground</a> as he walked away from police during a G-20 protest in 2009. Harwood will stand trial in October for manslaughter, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/jun/20/ian-tomlinson-death-officer-trial" target="_hplink">according to The Guardian</a>.
Michael Mineo accused an NYPD cop of sodomizing him with a baton after getting busted for smoking marijuana at a Brooklyn subway station in October 2008. A jury cleared the officer accused in the attack as well as two others charged with covering up the alleged assault.
In this May 24, 2010 file photo, former Chicago Police commander Jon Burge departs the federal building in Chicago. Burge, whose name has become synonymous with police brutality and abuse of power in Chicago, was convicted in 2010 of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying in a civil suit when he said he'd never witnessed or participated in the torture of suspects.
Danziger Bridge Shootings
The trial is underway for four New Orleans police officers accused of killing two people and wounding four others in the shooting on the Danziger Bridge in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The suspects, pictured left to right, are Robert Faulcon Jr., Robert Gisevius Jr., Kenneth Bowen, and Anthony Villavaso II.
Security cameras in a Manhattan apartment building recorded NYPD officer David London hitting Iraq war veteran Walter Harvin almost 20 times with a baton even after he had handcuffed him. The incident began when Harvin entered the building without a key and refused to identify himself to London. Footage shows Harvin shoved London, but the cop lied to investigators by claiming that he'd been punched before retaliating with his baton. A jury acquitted London of assault and making false statements in 2010.
Eleanor Bumpurs, a 66-year-old African American woman, was killed by NYPD officers who were trying to evict her from her Bronx public housing apartment in 1984 for falling behind on her rent. City housing authority workers called in the cops, because they claimed that Bumpurs -- shown in an undated photo -- was mentally ill and that she menaced them with a knife while refusing to vacate her home. The officer who shot Bumpers twice with a shotgun was acquitted in 1987.
The 2006 shooting of 23-year-old Sean Bell raised questions in New York City about the NYPD's use of excessive force. On what would have been his wedding day, Bell was shot and killed by police in a hail of 50 bullets outside a strip club in Queens. Officers said they thought the victim and his friends, who were celebrating Bell's bachelor party, were planning on retrieving a gun from their vehicle when they opened fire. After months of protests around the city, Officers Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper were acquitted in 2008.