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LAPD Gets Cameras -- Officers, Community Welcome New Tool

New America Media, News Report, Kenneth Kim Posted: Jun 07, 2008

Editor's Note: City officials and community activists have been asking for the cameras for almost two decades. The data collected from the cameras may help the LAPD comply with a federal consent decree requiring efforts to prevent racial profiling. Kenneth Kim is a Los Angeles based reporter for New America Media.

LOS ANGELES -- After 17 years of delay, Los Angeles is finally moving ahead with a plan to install in-car-video cameras in its police departments patrol cars aiming to improve accountability and to earn public trust.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Thursday at a press conference in the Police Academy that the Los Angeles Police Department would install cameras in about 300 cars in its South Bureau, which covers the most violent and diverse part of the city.

The first phase of the project would cost the city $5 million. If the system works as designed and the City Council agrees to allocate enough funds in coming budgets, cars in the LAPDs three other bureaus will be equipped in following years. The estimated price for the total project is about $20 million to $25 million.

Technology such as a new digital in-car camera system is just equipment these officers need, said Villaraigosa. Police officers do their part, and we do our part by providing equipments and resources they need to keep us safe.

City officials and community activists have been asking for the cameras for almost two decades, arguing they are critical tools for holding the department accountable.

LAPDs top brass also believes its a way to guard officers and the city against false allegations of police abuse made by people during encounters boosting officer morale and saving the city millions of dollars it pays to settle police wrongdoing lawsuits without clear evidence.

The idea of putting cameras in police patrol cars was first brought up in the early 1990s as a recommendation to reform LAPD by the Christopher Commission, which studied the department after the 1991 police beating of Rodney King that led to one of the most violent urban riots in the U.S. history. Early pilot programs failed by funding and technology problems.

Yet, the pitch never went away. After the Rampart Division police abuse scandal in late 1990s that escalated public outcry for more police accountability, the idea become more popular and discussions ensued. It seemed the proposal was at last turning into a reality when LAPD picked a $5 million IBM system in March 2007. But, intense lobbying efforts by competing companies over the contract put it on hold.

The long waited decision was finally made in early April when the City Council voted unanimously to approve the contract with IBM.

While the nations second biggest city was stalling, many cities, including Edison, New Jersey, a small city with a 190-officer department, made progress. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, by 2004 there were more than 175,000 police cars with cameras.

Asked a reason for the long delay, Councilman Ed Reyes, one of two council members who joined the press conference, held the administrations before Villaraigosa responsible.

The Council moved within two years after finally getting the budget, said Reyes, It just didnt continue to be a high priority for the previous administration.

L.A.'s mayor couldnt wait to size the moment of opportunity to highlight the result.

Ive been a big advocate of this effort (installing cameras in police cars) for some time. And I made it a priority. Thats why we moved as quickly as we could under my administration, said Villaraigosa.

Whether the previous Mayors are responsible for the long holdup or not, Chief William Bratton, a Bostonian, was just happy to see the project is going forward.This is Los Angeles. Things move a little slower than most other places, getting things done, said the chief -- 17 years. But its finally happening.

According to the chief, the data collected from the cameras may help the LAPD comply with a federal consent decree requiring efforts to prevent racial profiling during traffic stops because there will be a video and audio record of every stop.

Two cameras will be installed in each car. One installed near the rearview mirror pointing straight ahead will shoot images at the front of the car, and the other one facing the backseat will capture the behavior of the detainee in back seat. Also, the department will fit officers with wireless microphones that can pick up sound even when they leave the patrol car - while the cameras record images with zoom and auto-focus capabilities, the microphones worn by police officers record audio.

The data will automatically upload from the patrol car to a computer at the local police station through a secure WiFi network. They are then cataloged in an automated digital video management system that allows shift supervisors to easily search and review incidents by officer badge number, car number, date, time, location and type of incidents, according to IBM.

Nevertheless, the fact every move officers make would be recorded doesnt seem to concern them a lot.

Like workers in any other work place who dont like to go through a change, officers have some uneasy feelings. But, they believe police work will be more transparent. It will bring greater public trust, and they will be less hated. At the end, it'll be easier and safer for cops to do their jobs, not to mention freeing themselves from frivolous allegations of police misconduct.

The current department policy puts the officers life on hold until the complaint filed gets cleared.

From a patrol officer's point of view, its a good thing, said Officer Danny Hernandez.

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