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ESQ:Puzzling Out Cameras

By Donna Mallard | Oct. 2, 2015

Law Office Management

Oct. 2, 2015

ESQ:Puzzling Out Cameras

Susan Kostal

ith national attention focused on policing and on killings at the hands of law enforcement, agencies nationwide have rushed to put video cameras on their officers. Designed to increase transparency and community trust, cameras seem to be the right solution at the right time. But they may come at significant cost in dollars and, potentially, privacy and civil rights.

The Los Angeles Police Department became the largest agency in the country to adopt body cameras with an announcement in April, after four years of study and a pilot funded by donations. All 7,000 LAPD officers on field duty will wear cameras by the end of 2016, at a cost of $1.5 million for the devices (about $210 apiece); the department will pay manufacturer Taser another $7.1 million per year for digital storage, licensing, and other services. Last December, President Barack Obama proposed spending $75 million over three years on police cameras. And in May the Justice Department announced a $20 million pilot program to fund camera purchases by local departments.

The devices themselves are relatively inexpensive. But costs quickly escalate, especially when the video is used as evidence. Civil and criminal defense lawyers spent $150,000 combining the five cell phone clips bystanders in Oakland recorded of the fatal police shooting of Oscar Grant III in January 2009. The resulting video became evidence in civil and criminal cases against Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) officer Johannes Mehserle.

Grant's killing opened the discussion about cameras. But the real push to adopt them began with the release in 2014 of a yearlong study of the 66-officer Rialto department in San Bernardino County. There, use-of-force incidents fell by 59 percent when officers wore cameras, and reports against officers dropped by 87 percent. In short, the cameras seemed to make everyone behave better. (Attorney Martin J. Mayer with Jones & Mayer, who advises police agencies statewide, notes that less than 2 percent of police interactions involve the use of force, proper or improper.)

Body cameras also spark concern about privacy, security, and civil rights. The ACLU of Southern California notes that police cameras capture many non-suspects in private settings, including people who call police to their homes and crime victims who are children or who have suffered sexual assault. The organization also worries that some footage may be vulnerable to data breaches or get added to intelligence files on political activists. Another question is when officers should be allowed to review footage of their own activity.

With all these issues unsettled, agencies may simply be getting ahead of themselves: "We've seen departments getting the funding for cameras first, and then working on the policies governing them," says Catherine Wagner, an ACLU staff attorney. She says existing policies covering the use and storage of audio recordings or "dash cams" in police cars do not translate well for body cameras.

Three Northern California counties have adopted guidelines for how long the video footage should be kept, but individual departments are not obligated to follow them. And standards vary greatly across the country. Mayer says he recommends that agencies in California keep the recordings for at least two years, the statute of limitations under state law for civil rights claims.

"Tell me who is doing it right, because it's all over the map," says Santa Barbara County District Attorney Joyce E. Dudley. "No one has it together anywhere in the state."

The Associated Press and Bloomberg have reported that Taser, which contracts with Amazon Inc. to store the video that its cameras capture, charges its police department clients far more than it pays Amazon. Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle says the company's product also includes cataloging, improves accessibility, and offers a consistent chain of custody, among other services-and it's free for prosecutors.

The availability of video footage in the Grant case led to quicker and more reasonable financial settlements, according to both Dale Allen of Allen, Glaessner, Hazelwood & Werth in San Francisco, who represented BART, and Michael Rains, who defended Mehserle against criminal charges (the officer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter). And John Burris, who represented Grant's mother and daughter, agrees. They settled their federal civil rights claims for $1.3 million and $1.5 million, respectively.


Donna Mallard

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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