What Body Cameras May Mean for the Los Angeles Police Shooting

Last night's fatal altercation between a homeless man and the LAPD prompts many of the same questions regarding police surveillance.
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Last night's fatal altercation between a homeless man and the LAPD prompts many of the same questions regarding police surveillance.
Los Angeles Police Department officers at the Chinese New Year Golden Dragon Parade. (Photo: Jose Gil/ Shutterstock)

Los Angeles Police Department officers at the Chinese New Year Golden Dragon Parade. (Photo: Jose Gil/ Shutterstock)

Last night, police fatally shot an unarmed, homeless man in Los Angeles' Skid Row, an incident that was caught on camera—numerous times. One bystander captured a video, presumably using his or her phone, that's been watched more than six million times on Facebook. (The Facebook link doesn't work as of this writing, but the video also appears on YouTube.) There were at least two surveillance cameras pointed at the area, the Los Angeles Times reports. And at least one officer was wearing a body camera.

As the Los Angeles Police Department investigates whether the shooting was justified, one key question will be whether the shooting victim reached for an officer's gun. The bystander video doesn't seem to show an obvious grab, but it was taken from a distance and sometimes other people obscure the phone's view of the encounter. The body-worn camera may have the money shot. If it does, it'll be a major, public win for police body cameras, which some United States police departments have adopted in hopes they'll offer more evidence in ambiguous, "he-said-she-said" situations like this.

The body-worn camera may have the money shot. If it does, it'll be a major, public win for police body cameras.

In the past, police departments have said that body-camera evidence reduces the number of complaints they get and, in rare cases, provides proof of police wrongdoing. We have yet to see a high-profile case that turned on body-camera evidence, however.

Still, the public may never get the whole picture. The Los Angeles police may never release the video for the public to see. In general, the department doesn't plan to release videos from its officers unless it's legally compelled to, according to the Los Angeles Times. Normally, it doesn't have to release its videos into the public record because the recordings are evidence for investigations.

In the debate about the effects of body-worn cameras on policing, the only systematic, peer-reviewed study that's yet been published found that cameras reduce police violence. That study's researchers theorized that the cameras work because officers tell people they're being taped, reminding all parties that they're being watched. Sadly, that effect doesn't seem to have applied here.

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