The Los Angeles Police Department’s response to demands that its officers’ body camera footage be available to the media and the public has been simple and firm: No.
A news report from CBS’ local affiliate showing what appears to be LAPD officers planting drug evidence during an arrest may challenge how long the department may be able to maintain that policy.
Since Los Angeles started rolling out body cameras for its officers two years ago (partly funded by a federal grant, so we’re all paying for this), the LAPD has been insistent that body camera footage is not a public record and would not be released.
But a CBS reporter got his hands on a dozen body camera videos from the arrest of Ronald Shields, 52, stopped by police and charged with a hit-and-run in North Hollywood. The videos show what appears to be an officer taking a baggie of cocaine, planting it in Shields’ wallet, and then acting like he has discovered it on the scene.
The case appears to be very similar to a situation uncovered in Baltimore where an officer inadvertently recorded himself planting drugs on a scene. And it happened for the same reason. The body cameras continually record and buffer what’s happening, but without sound, for the previous 30 seconds, even when they’re not technically “on.” When a police officer actually turns the body camera “on,” the camera also saves the previous 30 seconds and they are captured in the footage.
So the officer’s own body camera captured him picking a packet of cocaine off the ground at the arrest scene, putting it in Shields’ wallet, and then pretending that he discovered the drugs during the search.
Shields’ attorney showed the footage in a pre-trial hearing and now the LAPD is investigating what happened. It may well be a situation where the officer was re-enacting “discovering” the drugs for the camera and didn’t actually plant drugs on an innocent man. That was the claim out of Baltimore. That’s still a terrible, deceptive practice that needs to stop immediately because it jeopardizes everything else about the arrest. You cannot “recreate” the discovery of evidence and expect people to reasonably believe everything else is real.
The discovery in Baltimore that the placement of the evidence in a case had been staged ultimately ended up in dozensof other criminal cases being dropped by prosecutors. So the discovery here in this one LAPD case could end up rippling out even further.
The LAPD may say they take claims of misconduct seriously and Mayor Eric Garcetti can claim that he “expects the highest integrity from everyone who wears badge,” but this case highlights exactly why the police should not have the authority to decide for itself whether body camera footage is released to the public.
Watch the footage in the CBS report here.
Photo Credit: LAPD body camera footage via CBS