LAPD strikes a balance between holding officers accountable and creating a surveillance state
Police departments around the United States are requiring at least some of their officers to wear body cameras while they're on duty in response to the backlash against the high-profile killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black youth, by a white officer last August.
Those efforts have been widely accepted by the public. Indeed, a petition to enact a law requiring on-duty officers to wear body cameras received 154,747 signatures, which led the White House to issue an official response about the increasingly important issue.
But others have raised concerns about the privacy implications of a police force which constantly records all its interactions with the public. Should an officer's entire shift be recorded? What about all their conversations with both civilians and other officers?
It's not clear where the line should be drawn, but the Los Angeles Police Department might have found a decent compromise between recording too little or too much of an officer's actions: using one of Taser's weapons that starts recording when its safety is off.
The idea is that recording when the Taser's safety is off will capture high-stress encounters with the police without requiring an officer to record their every move. Reuters reports that the LAPD has ordered 3,000 of the digitally-improved Tasers. (Other LAPD officers are outfitted with body cameras but not these new Tasers.)
In addition to activating an officer's body camera, these Tasers also record information about when they were fired, whether their prongs found a target, and how long their "thousands of volts of electricity" are allowed to pulse through whomever they struck.
It's not a perfect system. The Tasers can only force a camera to turn on if they're used; an officer verbally berating a civilian, using a gun on a suspect, or physically assaulting a person wouldn't have to worry about their body camera automatically starting to record. It might even discourage officers from using Taser's less-lethal weapons more often.
Still, the idea of body cameras which automatically record an officer's interactions when a trigger outside the officer's control is activated remains appealing. Perhaps the camera could turn on when a certain noise threshold is passed, when it detects that an officer is moving more than he was in the recent past, or when a civilian says a command word.
Body cameras will never be a magical fix to problems endemic to police departments. As the non-indictment of the New York Police Department officer who was caught on camera placing Eric Garner in an illegal and ultimately deadly chokehold, video isn't worth much if grand juries continually decline to indict officers.
But they could help curb police violence. The trick is to do so without turning the US into a surveillance state where everyone's actions are recorded by police officers and other individuals wearing body cameras. LA's solution isn't perfect, but it's something.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]