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LAPD's Plan to Use Body Cameras Met With Optimism, Skepticism

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The LAPD's plans to become the first major urban police force to equip all of its officers with body cameras has brought optimism, and raised many questions about the use of cameras and whether they will help end police brutality.

"I saw video of Eric Garner along with millions of other people and that didn't net an indictment," said Jasmyne A. Cannick, a political consultant and blogger. "I understand people's excitement and happiness, but what's going to come of it?" she asked.

The furor surrounding the decisions not to indict the police who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner has reignited a national debate about police conduct. The timing has coincided with the rise in police body cameras, which law enforcement agencies across the nation have been experimenting with. They've have been touted as protecting both officers and the public by providing an objective record of officers' interactions. In Rialto, whose officers began implementing body cameras in before many departments in 2012, officials credit them with reducing complaints against police.

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Mayor Eric Garcetti announced today that the city will purchase 7,000 police body cameras. Negotiations are continuing, but the cameras are expected to cost in the "high single-digit millions of dollars. He said he hopes to have the cameras by the end of the next fiscal year.

An initial round of more than 800 Axon cameras will be provided to selected officers at the beginning of the year, with funding provided by roughly $1.5 million in private donations raised by Police Commission President Steve Soboroff.

"These cameras will help law enforcement and the public alike find the truth -- and truth is essential to the trust between the LAPD and the community, which has been a key factor in lower crime to record lows," Garcetti said.

President Barack Obama recently announced that he wants $263 million in federal funds to go toward training police officers and buying body cameras to be worn by law enforcement. The request came in the wake of protests over a grand jury's decision not to indict the white police officer who killed Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Watts Neighborhood Council member Henry Broomfield supports the use of cameras, as do many Watts residents, he said, but he believes more will be required to heal deep divisions in his South L.A. neighborhood. "We have more concerns than just worrying about cameras," he said. "The cameras to me are a Band Aid -- it's not going to solve what's in someone's heart."

For Eric Rose, a former longtime LAPD union representative and reserve police officer, the Brown and Garner incidents don't demonstrate misconduct, but a failure by police to be transparent about why the officers were not held accountable.

"Law enforcement has to do a better job across the board of explaining how they came to the conclusions they did in controversial cases when they choose not to prosecute a police officer," he said.

The department is expected to release policy details about the cameras early next year.

In a public statement, Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said those details will be very important. Officers should not be allowed to determine when the cameras are turned on or off, to review the video before giving official statements, or to show video to suspects, Villagra said.

"Body cameras raise serious privacy concerns for both officers and civilians that must be addressed through strong policies that limit when police can access video, when they can share it with other agencies or distribute it to the public, and how those limits will be audited to ensure compliance," he said.

To Cannick, Broomfield, and others, the devil may lie in these kinds of details. To them, the department's policies on how and when it will or will not release the videos to the public will be of huge importance.

"There's still work that needs to be done," Cannick said.

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