Ending Delays, L.A. Police Finally Get Car Cameras

The Los Angeles Police Department will finally get dashboard cameras inside its patrol cars, a decade or more after other police forces across the country have made car cams standard equipment. The LAPD blames the delay on money, but longtime police observers say it's mostly because many L.A. cops were reluctant to have a prying eye constantly looking over their shoulders.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Los Angeles Police Department will soon begin installing windshield video cameras on its patrol cars to monitor arrests and stops. The change comes more than a decade after other police agencies started making cameras standard equipment. The LAPD blames the delay on a lack of money, but some civil rights advocates say it's because many LA officers were reluctant to have their actions scrutinized.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: The LAPD has run into problems more than once because of incidents caught on tape. The most notorious example is the home video of the Rodney King beating back in 1992, but there have been others, like the video that turned up recently on the YouTube Web site. It shows two LAPD officers holding down a handcuffed suspect as one of them repeatedly punches the man in the face.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Man #1: I can't breathe.

Unidentified Man #2: Then don't.

Unidentified Man #1: I can't breathe. Please?

Unidentified Man #3: Then don't.

DEL BARCO: That's the suspect, saying he can't breathe with the officers knee to his throat. Many of these incidents have been costly. Just this week, the city had to pay nearly half a million dollars to suspected car thief Stanley Miller. Live TV news helicopters caught an LAPD officer beating Miller with a metal flashlight.

But now, the LAPD plans to videotape itself. With cameras mounted on the dashboards of squad cars, officers will be outfitted with wireless mics to record the audio. LAPD Lieutenant Paul Vernon says the department views the car cams as great tool.

Lieutenant PAUL VERNON (LAPD Police Officer): Our officers are out there doing their job professionally everyday. We have nothing to hide. For as much as many people would see this as being an opportunity to catch a bad cop. Really, what it is, more times than not, is to show that the police officers are doing their job properly.

(Soundbite of police siren)

KELLY: In Monterey Park just east of downtown LA, police have been recording calls to action like this for the past 15 years. After the dispatch goes out, Officer Peter Young speeds through town, the sirens blazing and the video rolling even when it turns out just to be a false alarm at a bank.

Officer PETER YOUNG (Monterey Park Police): The video camera will give the exact play by play of what occurs.

KELLY: So why has it taken Los Angeles Police so long to catch up with Monterey Park and others? LAPD Lieutenant Vernon says it's been mostly about money. Today, the equipment is not only cheaper, it's better. And Vernon says he's anxious to get it.

Lieutenant VERNON: It's just more transparency for the police department in what we do everyday and to help to overcome many of the beliefs that people have in that the police department, somehow, abuses people in the street.

KELLY: Civil rights attorney Connie Rice says she hopes the cameras will raise the level of respect and civility among officers, and she says welcoming video cameras is a dramatic change from the old LAPD.

Ms. CONNIE RICE (Civil Rights Lawyer): I don't recall anybody in LAPD thinking this was a good idea 15 years ago. It was a different department, a different ethos, it's much more KGB-like - assume nothing. We didn't even get to the question of money, it was just no and no and no - when hell freezes over.

KELLY: But Rice says those attitudes have been slowly changing.

Ms. RICE: You can't tell by looking at what goes on in the street day to day, but you can tell at the top. The leadership is far more open, far more willing to share information. They actually believe that civilian oversight is good.

KELLY: After dealing with scandals and corruption has eroded trust in the police, she says the LAPD finally understands the need for cooperation to investigate crimes.

Attorney RICE: The police are now realizing, they need the backing of the community to this job.

KELLY: Former Chief Bernard Parks, who's now on the LA City Council, has also come to believe that the car cams are a good idea. But he says those cameras can't see everything.

Mr. BERNARD PARKS (Los Angeles City Council): One thing we should not do is believe that these cameras are gonna be the save all, win all because we have to realize its limitations there. Because if you're not in front of the vehicle, the cameras don't pick up the video. So it's going to be another tool. Also, we've realized that if there are people that choose to avoid it, they will.

KELLY: You mean, the officer?

Mr. PARKS: The officers - if officers choose to circumvent the system, they will.

KELLY: Parks says there may always be rogue cops. But at least the cameras will allow the department to root them out by watching their own videotapes for a change.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

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