Cameras. Dash cams. Body Cams. The cure for police transparency, that protects and proves that the police conducted themselves properly, with the added benefit of providing a record of the defendant’s wrongdoing and statements. What’s not to like?
Apparently, enough that the Los Angeles Police Department found out that some of its officers screwed with their mandated cameras so that they wouldn’t work.
Los Angeles police officers tampered with voice recording equipment in dozens of patrol cars in an effort to avoid being monitored while on duty, according to records and interviews.
An inspection by Los Angeles Police Department investigators found about half of the estimated 80 cars in one South L.A. patrol division were missing antennas, which help capture what officers say in the field. The antennas in at least 10 more cars in nearby divisions had also been removed.
As cameras were an integral part of the LAPD’s getting out from under federal monitoring:
Using the recording devices isn’t optional. They’re in place to discourage police misconduct as well as to protect cops against false claims by citizens, and they were one of the safeguards established when the U.S. Justice Department lifted its oversight of the department.
Another safeguard was a Police Commission to oversee operations and compliance, but nobody bothered to tell it about the cameras, even though the top brass learned of it last summer.
Members of the Police Commission, which oversees the department, were not briefed about the problem until months later. In interviews with The Times, some commissioners said they were alarmed by the officers’ attempts to conceal what occurred in the field, as well as the failure of department officials to come forward when the problem first came to light.
And LAPD Chief Charlie Beck offered his best explanation for the failure to alert the Commission.
Beck said there was no deliberate attempt to keep the commission in the dark, saying the failure to alert the board was “unintentional.”
“The department did not try to hide this issue,” Beck said, emphasizing that he has been a vocal advocate for the in-car video cameras that rely on the antennas.
The missing antennas were noticed by a supervisor last July, and rather than disclose that antennas needed to make the system work were gone, the LAPD tried to fix its problem quietly:
Instead, warnings went out at roll-call meetings throughout South Bureau, and new rules were put in place requiring officers to document that both antennas were in place at the beginning and end of each shift. To guard against officers removing the antennas during their shifts, Tingirides said he requires patrol supervisors to make unannounced checks on cars.
“We took the situation very seriously. But because the chances of determining who was responsible was so low we elected to … move on,” Smith said, adding that it cost the department about $1,500 to replace all the antennas.
For all that working cameras can do to provide documentary evidence of what happens on the job, what happened with the LAPD reflects the constant dilemma with all technological solutions to provide transparency to policing. It’s only as good as its use. There are a wealth of possible ways to screw with cameras, and what cameras record, and how cameras work, and, well, everything about cameras.
While they can be a critical part of the solution of transparency, they only go as far as they go. No officer with a missing antenna on his cruiser was disciplined, no doubt because it can’t be proven it wasn’t stolen or broken off. How can the cop be blamed? Yet gone it was.
As Radley Balko notes, what happened in LA is why there needs to be a missing video presumption:
It doesn’t matter how potentially beneficial the technology is if the cops using it are going to undermine its transparency value, and if police agencies and courts don’t subsequently hold those cops accountable.
There is no system that will be foolproof, incapable of tampering or manipulation. Whether it’s cutting off the electricity to run it, or removing an antenna needed to save it, or parking the car sufficiently far away so that recording is hindered by big buildings, the cops who don’t want to be recorded will find a way to screw with it. There is no way to conceive of all the possibilities, but you can bet someone will figure out a way to game the system.
And as LAPD proved with its “unintentional” failure to alert the Police Commission of the missing antennas, the back side of the system to prevent police abuse is rife with gaps. With Chief Beck putting on a puppy face and shuffling his feet, swearing that the concealment of this mess wasn’t intentional, the worst he’ll get is a stern lecture and Happy Meal lunch out of the deal. And life goes on as if it never happened. Until the next time LAPD officers come up with a cool way to screw with the dreaded cameras.
The solution, to the extent there is one, is to put the sanction outside the control of the police. The missing video presumption is clearly necessary to impose a cost to police camera malfeasance. And even this isn’t a cure, as it depends on how courts handle and apply it, particularly in cases where partial video is produced, while critical bits miraculously go missing.
For anyone who believes that there is a fix, a cure, that will once and for all end the ability of cops to conceal misconduct and abuse, and for courts and the public to be assured that they will have full transparency, grow up. There will always be problems, as no system that relies in any way on human involvement is perfect.
But in the meantime, it’s critical to make these systems as immune from police manipulation as possible, as this LAPD revelation demonstrates that if cops can find a way to screw with cameras, they will.