Commission votes to change policy on use of body cam video

The Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously approved a plan Tuesday to release video from officer body cameras and other sources recorded during shootings and major crimes or confrontations.

The decision by the civilian oversight panel reverses previous Los Angeles Police Department policy that withheld videos recorded by thousands of body cameras. The cameras have been used in the field since the City Council enacted a $59 million plan in June 2016 to equip more than 7,000 patrol officers with the devices.

The implementation of the body camera videos sparked a debate on when footage shot during serious incidents should be publicly released, with many civil rights groups calling for their immediate release. Some officials, including Chief Charlie Beck, have expressed hesitance at releasing footage, citing privacy rights of people in the videos and possible harm to continuing police investigations.

"I think this will go a long way in helping build public trust through a significant increase in transparency,'' Commission Vice President Matt Johnson said.

Under the new video policy drafted by Richard Tefank, executive director of the Police Commission, video shot during serious incidents -- including shootings, in-custody deaths and other ``critical'' events -- would be released within 45 days. The new policy apples to body cameras, in-car video, police facility surveillance video, drones and video in the department's possession that was captured by third parties.

"This policy is intended to balance two important interests: the public's interest in transparency and police accountability, and the privacy of interests of the individuals depicted in such videos,'' Tefank wrote in the proposal, under which video can be withheld from public release under certain circumstances, including to protect confidential sources or the integrity of an investigation.

Decisions on delaying the release of video would be made by the police chief and two selected commissioners. If the three-person panel votes unanimously, the video would be delayed from public release for 14 days, and the decision would be revisited every 14 days. If the video has not been released after 28 days it will be placed on the agenda of the next Police Commission meeting for discussion, and the commission can overrule the subcommittee.

"These reasons (for withholding video) must not be general and must have a factual basis and be specific to the individual case. For example, investigators have identified but not been able to interview a key witness,'' Johnson said last month when introducing the policy.

The use of body cameras has become a prominent issue as the focus on police shootings has grown nationally, and the LAPD has said it hopes the cameras will help build more public trust in the department.

The commission last year retained the Policing Project at New York University School of Law to gather public input into a new policy regarding the release of body-worn camera video. According to a report it released last September, a majority of members of the general public who responded to a Policing Project survey said video shot during critical incidents should be made publicly available within a short period of time.

The new video policy will become active in 30 days.

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